Auntie's Tall Tale Of Daddy Long Legs

It’s always fun to trace the chain of Chinese whispers between primary research and scary news stories about the ravages of climate change. Many BBC science stories are particularly easy to trace back to source, based as they are on a single scientific paper, from which they are separated by only a single press release. But even when the whisper chain is a short one, there is plenty of room for the distortion of sobre science to alarmist headline, especially when the press release contains everything you need for the job. So it was with the BBC’s ‘Bid to aid daddy longlegs numbers’ published on Thursday:

Climate change is killing off cranefly and in turn threatening the survival of upland wild bird species that feed on them, RSPB Scotland has warned.

The Telegraph also reported the story:

Daddy longlegs decline could spell extinction for golden plover

So did the Daily Mail, which isn’t even supposed to believe in this new-fangled climate change business:

Warmer summers ‘killing off daddy long legs and beloved British birds’

And Science Daily:

Drop In Daddy Long Legs Is Devastating Bird Populations

All the stories drew entirely from a press release issued by RSPB Scotland, which they have simply condensed and bolted on their own introduction and headline. (Science Daily also spliced in an extra quote from a co-author of the research paper). Here’s the headline of the presser:

Warmer weather pummels plovers

Craneflies – better known in the UK, at least, as daddy longlegs – are gangly insects that appear en masse in temperate regions for a few weeks in spring, providing a bonanza food source for breeding birds and other predators. Judging by the news stories, climate change is killing them off by drying out the soil in which their larvae live, which is in turn killing off the birds that rely on them.

But according to the research paper, published in the journal Global Change Biology, it is far from clear that golden plovers are even declining, let alone being ‘killed off’, ‘pummeled’ or ‘devastated’, as shown in the paper’s Figure 5:

The data represent just a single, small population. But neither is there much evidence that golden plovers are undergoing a national, European or global decline. Lead author of the paper, Dr James Pearce-Higgins of RSPB Scotland, confirmed this when we spoke to him on the phone.

The population studied by Pearce-Higgins and his colleagues sits on the southern edge of the species’ range in the English Peak District. This was by design, in that the intention was to examine how global temperature rises might affect species distributions. While evidence is accumulating that many species expand their ranges northwards in response to a warming trend (in the Northern Hemisphere), evidence for predicted contractions at the southern limit of species’ ranges is sparse. But even in what might be expected to be a particularly sensitive population, there is no downward trend in plover numbers over the last 35 years, despite a local rise in mean August temperatures of 1.9C over that period.

That is not to say, however, that temperature rises are not having an effect on the population. Pearce-Higgins et al have developed a model that does seem to explain much of the variation in plover numbers over the 35-year period. The model integrates previous work by the group, which found that plover mortality rises in cold winters, with new data showing that high August temperatures kill off cranefly larvae leading to fewer adults emerging the following spring when the birds are feeding their chicks. So, rising temperatures are a double-edged sword for plovers. Mild winters increase survival, but hot summers reduce breeding success. The model suggests that there might have been a switch in the relative importance of these two effects in recent years, with spring food availability becoming a more important determinant than winter temperature of population size.

There remains, of course, a lot of unexplained variability in the system, and Pearce-Higgins is reticent to attribute any short-term population fluctuations to specific effects:

From about the mid-’90s to mid-2000s, when the time series stops, there’s actually – although we don’t put this in the paper – there’s actually a significant decline in golden plover numbers […] I guess I was being cautious really, in terms of attributing the decline to what’s going on, particularly as, if you look across the whole of the UK, there isn’t much evidence of a golden plover population decline, and I’m very well aware that lots of other factors are affecting their population […] If you take the trend from the mid-90s through to when we finish about 2005, there is a decline there, but obviously that’s an arbitrary cut-off.

So, all the news stories – and, indeed, the RSPB’s own press release – are wrong to suggest that climate change is reducing plover populations. While they all treat the issue in the present tense, as if golden plovers are being devastated by climate change in the here and now, the only evidence of population decline presented by paper comes from the application of the model to future population trends.

The researchers take the 1.9C local temperature rise over the past 35 years and extrapolate it over the next 100 years. The resulting rise of 5.2C above the 1971-2005 mean would, according to their model, result in a 96% chance of extinction of the population. A 1.9C local rise in August mean temperatures would seem very large, however, when global temperatures have increased by 1C over the past century, and it’s certainly much bigger than the rise in temperature experienced by central England over the same period.

The researchers also apply their model to a range of other temperature scenarios:

In other words, things have to get pretty warm before even a small population on the edge of the species’ range starts to feel the heat. And yet it is only the extrapolation of the 1.9C rise that makes it into the press release and, therefore, the news stories.

Not only have news reports confused current declines with possible declines in the future, but they deal only with an apparently unrepresentative worst-case scenario, and they apply data from a single population at the southern extremity of the species’ range to the species as a whole to announce that a species that isn’t even declining is being driven to extinction.

Given that all the news coverage of the paper was based almost verbatim on the press release, it is perhaps surprising that Pearce-Higgins is happy with how the RSPB presented the research:

I don’t think the press release is particularly misleading really

‘That’s the challenge’ he says,

to try to get across what is quite a complicated message, but with an important underlying message, in a way that is acceptable to the media, but that also does justice to the science.

Readers can make up their own minds whether the RSPB press release does justice to the science. But it certainly seems to have been acceptable to the media, who didn’t need to look any further to get their alarmist climate stories. One particular quote in the RSPB press release proved particularly attractive, being used by the BBC, Telegraph and Daily Mail. It’s from Pearce-Higgins:

This is the most worrying development that I have found in my scientific career to date.

Perhaps that’s what he means by the ‘important underlying message’.

Climate Criminals to the Naughty Step

It’s not easy watching It’s Not Easy Being Green, BBC2’s show about how easy it is being green – if you are a professional environmentalist.

After the first episode of the new series, we mentioned that edgy yet ethical rock chick Lauren Laverne had been trying to chivvy along the upper classes’ pitiful attempts to save the planet by showing how to build your own eco-swimming pool for £100k.

In the second episode, her task was to decorate the home of some well-heeled eco-spivs with overpriced recycled furniture. It was her own home. In her own words:

This is like punk-rock antiquing!

(And in the words of Harry Enfield: ‘There’s quite a market for this particular type of wank round here.’)

Episode three sees Lauren answering a series of questions about her lifestyle to find out how many planets we would need to sustain us if we all lived like that. She scores 2.73 planets, a close second behind green-guru presenter Dick Strawbridge’s own 2.4 planets, which he says is only so high because the quiz takes into account that he eats meat but not that they’re his own pigs. (Neither does it include the planets exploited by the BBC infrastructure that tracks – and pays for – his every eco-improvement.)

In episode 4, Strawbridge heads up to London to put actor Julian Rhind-Tutt through the eco-guest lifestyle challenge quiz thing. He scores 3.84 planets. Oh how they laugh. Before he travels back to Cornwall by carrier pigeon, Strawbridge provides another justification for his own (and Rhind-Tutt’s) planet-hungry ways:

Travel comes with work and the sort of things we have to do, and, you know, to be fair, you’ve got to look at how many people you make happy when you’re off doing all these things

Yeah, look at all those bastards going off travelling and not making anyone else happy or even feeling guilty about it. (Spiked have put it rather nicely recently, here.)

To episode 5… Lauren checks out designer low-carbon-fair-trade-recycled fashion. At the bottom end of the market, T-shirts – quite literally a snip – start at £80. Lauren is too embarrassed to show the price-tag of the skirt she takes a fancy to. And for the rest of us?

Strawbridge: Let’s not forget, Lauren, you don’t have to stick to the highstreet. You can buy clothes from car boots and charity shops, too. Great clothes don’t have to cost the Earth.

Patronising twaddle aside, this whole climate-change-is-a-fun-sort-of-disaster theme is not only to be found on desperate tv shows for people with spare cash and time on their hands. We are reminded of an exhibition called Burning Issue: Climate Change. Though held at London’s Science Museum, it was about anything but science. The finale there was another computer game that ‘measured’ the environmental impact of our lifestyle choices.

Such was the confusion of the nation’s premier science museum’s computer that it couldn’t actually bring itself to recommend any of its own recommendations. Try to do the right thing and skip your annual holiday for the sake of future generations and it told you that:

Even eco-warriors need to get away sometimes! Relax a little

Take a coach tour of the highlands – the lowest carbon option available – however, and it accused you of triggering environmental ‘meltdown’.

Similarly, we’ve been quoting UK energy minister Ed Miliband’s comments about the airport protests rather a lot recently:

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

One of the many problems with orthodoxies that exist only because nobody can come up with anything better is that they are just a bit of a laugh for everyone concerned. They are not really meant to be taken too seriously or anything. These lifestyle quizzes/comedy confessions are meant to make the participants feel a little bit guilty, but not too guilty. Miliband likes to see a bit of an environmental protest by people dressed up as Suffragettes, just so long as it is only a bit of one. No one really believes this stuff. Apart from Lieutenant Colonel Dick Strawbridge maybe. But only because he doesn’t have any time to sit down and think about it, what with having to run round all the time milking lentils and fleecing the BBC.

Saving the planet is just a way to pass the time.

Penguins Are Killing the Polar Bears

This week has been a PR disaster for the North Pole. No sooner had scientists shown that the Antarctic really had been warming up a bit, actually, probably due to climate change and everything, than it was proved that Emperor penguins are more screwed even than the polar bears:

Emperor penguins, whose long treks across Antarctic ice to mate have been immortalised by Hollywood, are heading towards extinction, scientists say.

Based on predictions of sea ice extent from climate change models, the penguins are likely to see their numbers plummet by 95% by 2100.

That wasn’t the week’s only Disney-esque polar-flip. The BBC tells us that the theory of evolution is now as robust as climate science. Enjoy the closing remarks of BBC4’s otherwise excellent What Darwin Didn’t Know:

Perhaps, then, evolution does not so much resemble the weather as it does our climate. At the grander scales of space and time, the atmosphere is not chaotic. The physics of our planet imposes order, and thus predictability upon it. So, although we can scarcely tell what the weather will be three weeks from now, we can predict, at least probablilistically, what the climate will be three centuries hence.

All of which will be news to climate modellers.

Elsewhere… it was a while ago now, but our original post about Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern’s potential conflict of interests regarding his writing of the influential Stern report on the economics of climate change and his executive position with IDEAglobal drew a certain amount of criticism at the time. Eg:

I hate to deprive your charming readers of any opportunity for the foam-flecked ranting they so obviously enjoy, but there is a gaping hole in your argument here.

Stern was not connected to IDEAcarbon/IDEAglobal at the time he wrote his report on climate change, or indeed when he served as chief economist at the World Bank. If he had been, or if his report had been funded in any way by companies that stood to gain from its findings, then there would have been a conflict of interest. As it stands, the comparison with Exxon’s funding of climate denialists doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny.

As smear campaigns go, this one is well below even your own usual standards.

We disagreed:

environmentalists wouldn’t be satisfied if it were a sceptical scientist (even though Stern is not a scientist) who had been instrumental in influencing anti-mitigation, anti-Kyoto policy decisions in governments throughout the world, who later landed a top job in a company selling PR, financial, and market intelligence products to the oil industry. There would be talk of ‘the tobacco strategy’. There would be talk of private and political interests ‘manufacturing uncertainty’.

However, it is a joy to be able to plug the gulf that separates those double standards with this article from 4 August 1999:

Nick Stern, who has been made chairman of London Economics, has advised the IMF and the World Bank, and of course had to be a terrible Europhile to work for the EBRD, of gold taps and Jacques Attali fame. Professor Stern will be full-time chairman until he adds a half-time Chair in Economics at the London School of Economics

The Prof also joined the advisory board of yesterday to give the web consultancy a weekly round-up on global economics. How he finds the time, goodness knows.

Soon after Stern started at IDEAglobal, he was appointed chief economist at the World Bank: announced today that professor Nicholas Stern of its Advisory Board was named Chief Economist of the World Bank. Professor Stern succeeds Joseph Stiglitz and is due to take up his new post in July.

As a member of its Advisory Board Professor, Stern contributes to’s research on international financial markets and global economic policy. Professor Stern is the former Chief Economist of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, where he played a key role in advising on the transition process in Eastern and Central Europe.

The Stern Review was published 2006. The rest is history.

Cut and Paste Journalism

BBC bosses today tried to make excuses for the cut-and-paste job by BBC science journalist, Susan Watts, as discovered by Tony at Harmless Sky recently. Answering criticism on Watts’ blog, Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon said:

We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. The aim was to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. You can look for yourself above.

If this is true, it means that the editorial team at BBC Newsnight are shockingly naive. If that is true, then we would like to know, what are they doing producing the networks flagship current affairs magazine programme?

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt with respect to their editorial oversight, by which we mean that we accept that they are naive, the feature drips with the kind of ideological prejudice that any run-of-the-mill eco-warrior can muster. This is not news, nor is it analysis. It is projection.

Here is a transcript of the feature, Restoring science to its rightful place, with our commentary.

OBAMA: We will restore science to its rightful place [snip] roll back the spectre of a warming planet [snip] we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

As has been pointed out, this is a cut and paste job, which sets up the background to Watts’ presentation. Peter Rippon claims this has been done innocently, and that ‘fades between each point’ underscore the ‘montage’ of different parts of Obama’s speech, as an ‘impression’ of what he had said, not what he had actually said. But these images are not of Obama, but of a victorian green house in London’s Kew Gardens. Why would different shots of 19th Century greenhouse architecture make it obvious to viewers that what they were hearing was a ‘montage’?

WATTS: President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today, and for most scientists, his vote of confidence will have come not a moment too soon.

So here is Watts’ naked position: Bush was anti science. And now ‘most scientists’ are happy because Bush is gone. Bush = anti-science; Obama = pro-science. Bush is a baddy, and Obama is a goody. Science says so. It proves it. Understand?

Watts says that Obama ‘couldn’t have been clearer’, but she had to splice his words together to get him to make her point.

You don’t need to be a Bush fan to find this kind of retrospective shallow. We’re not Bush fans. Yet, throughout the last eight years, what has struck us is that science has become the stick with which to beat Bush, not because he really stood against science, but because his critics – not just the Democrats – lacked any real substance either. That is to say, as we have in the past, that science is a last-resort of vacuous politics: it fails to make a persuasive case on its own terms, and so borrows authority from ‘science’. Like trying to use ‘science’ to prove that something is immoral, what this reveals is the intellectual exhaustion of the critic.

Watts continues:

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record Summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

So Bush melted the ice cap, right?

There has certainly been a shift in rhetoric from ‘urgent to panicky’, but that shift is not justified by ‘the science’. The IPCC’s AR4 gave no reason to believe that thermageddon was any closer than it was when its predecessor AR3 came out. To make it sound like it did, environmentalist commentators – notably those at the BBC – also had to cut and paste.

And as we have pointed out recently, the panicky tone of environmentalists is owed not to the emergence of new climate research but to their need to sustain leverage over a sympathetic establishment. In fact, the big stories over the last few years – the prospect of an Arctic free of summer ice, fears about peak oil after price hikes, and predictions of ‘warmest summers on record’ – all failed to materialise. If recent history shows anything, it is that environmentalists have reached the point of peak doom.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century, and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the human genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

There are many things you can say about the end of the Clinton administration, but ‘palpable lift’ isn’t really one of them. Clinton’s years were characterised by scandal and political crisis, offset by a very aggressive foreign policy – pretty much what the ensuing Bush administration consisted of. For example, as CNN reported in 1998:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Saying “there will be no sanctuary for terrorists,” President Clinton on Thursday said the U.S. strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a facility in Sudan are part of “a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism.” […]

The president said he ordered the strike against bin Laden and his compatriots because of “compelling information they were planning additional terrorist attacks against our citizens and others with the inevitable collateral casualties and .. seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? As it turned out, the Sudanese factory Clinton bombed turned out to be making pharmaceuticals, not WMD. Just a few months later:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — From the Oval Office, President Clinton told the nation Wednesday evening why he ordered new military strikes against Iraq. The president said Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors presented a threat to the entire world. “Saddam (Hussein) must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” Clinton said.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The point we are making here is that it is difficult for people – journalists especially – to locate territory from which to criticise Bush. Clearly, the War on Terror – and all its rhetoric – had roots in the Clinton era. The Bush administration doesn’t look so different, after all. Different styles, maybe, but the same substance. Unless, as Watts claims, they took different positions on science:

Science was riding high. But Bush was less attentive.

But According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, things aren’t so simple:

How can it be said that Bush was ‘anti-science’ if, as the AAAS seem to indicate, research budgets increased during his administration? In ignorance of what she speaks, Watts continues:

Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy. His very public distaste for stem-cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in the biblical story of creation than evolution.

It’s not as much Bush’s hostility to ‘science’ that Watts worries about, but the failure of his critics to use ‘science’ to influence public policy. One may well say that Bush’s policies didn’t reflect ‘scientific’ opinion. But the point we have made here, many times, is that science cannot produce moral arguments. Science cannot tell you that it is ‘right’ to abort or research on a foetus. These matters, which seemingly characterise the debate that was influenced by religious attitudes, are only illuminated by science to the extent that it says what may be possible to achieve. The problem, as we have outlined in the past, is that Bush’s critics hide their shame – their inability to make moral arguments – behind science. It is a fig leaf.

Watts is deeply confused. According to her, it is ‘the religious vote’ that influences Bush. But in the very next sentence, it is Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ that raises public suspicion, seemingly with the effect of increasing the prevalence of creationism. One moment, Bush is weak because he respond to the vote, the next he is able to manipulate it. Whether we agree with Bush or not, Watts’ complaint is that Bush succeeded in making an argument to the public through the democratic process. Her complaint is with democracy. The science that Watts believes trumps democracy is good, old fashioned arrogance.

And anyway, where did Watts get the idea that adherence to Biblical interpretations of life on Earth increased under Bush? Not from Gallup, which has data going back to 1982:

Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ is a favorite of those wishing to cast him in the role of enemy of science. But Watts’ statement simplifies the political reality to the point that it bears no relationship to the truth. US policy requires that Federal funds cannot be used for research on embryonic stem cells. State-sponsored researchers can and do work on stem cells from other sources. And meanwhile, university researchers can and do work on embryonic stem cells – just so long as they don’t use federal funds (which makes for some complicated partitioning of lab equipment in many a US university department). For what it’s worth, we, too, are not impressed by US stem-cell policies. But neither are we impressed by the simplistic portrayal of Bush’s stance, especially when the US’s regulation of embryonic SC research is mirrored in the policies of a host of European nations, including such models of Liberal democracy as Germany and Denmark.


Scientists have got used to attempts to silence them. But now they are speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars which pass, climate change does not and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.

On her blog, Watts expands on her claims that scientists have been silenced, in a post that Asher Mullard, an editor at the science journal Nature, describes as ‘a meaty overview of a light at the end of the tunnel after 8 long years for scientists’…

Just last week a Nasa scientist, Jim Hansen, whom Bush had tried to silence in the past warned that Obama has just four years to save the world. But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already promoted many to top advisory positions… crucially on energy policy.

We’ve dealt with Hansen’s ‘four years to save the world’ claim elsewhere. But note that, in Watts’ world, the speculative splutterings of a single rogue scientist become ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world’.

If Bush did try to silence Hansen, he didn’t try very hard. Hansen has barely been out of the news this century. According to the Washington Times:

A NASA scientist who said the Bush administration muzzled him because of his belief in global warming yesterday acknowledged to Congress that he’d done more than 1,400 on-the-job interviews in recent years.

To pick but one example from his vast output, in 2007, we reported on Hansen’s 3000-word article in New Scientist where he claimed that sea level rise will be orders of magnitude faster than IPCC projections suggest. When the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon. Who’s being silenced?

Hansen is Watts’ representative scientist. And yet he departs from ‘the consensus’ as spectacularly as any executive of ExxonMobil – he just happens to do so in a more politically correct direction.

Back to the transcript:

But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already appointed several to leading advisory positions. And although he has to deal with internal squabbles about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax is the best way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, at least the Obama team does agree on the goal.

As did all the other presidential candidates. And as do the Socialist Workers, the UK Conservative Party, the far-right British National Party and everybody else.

So Obama has a unique opportunity to fix the recession and fix climate change at the same time. He just has to have the nerve to follow through. And this year of all years, leadership matters, because the world hopes to thrash out a global deal to cut emissions. So if he does stick to his promises on renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and hybrid vehicles, he’ll help loosen the grip that fossil fuels hold on all our lives.

So Obama can fix the recession and save the world from global warming… But why stop there? Maybe we could ask him to find a cure for cancer and the common cold too, by next week? Oh, and then there’s that eternal question he could answer – ‘why are we here?’ Obama’s to-do list grows as the people reporting on his progress empty their heads of reason. Watts’ analysis is, as we said at the beginning of this post, not journalism, but projection. Her story says nothing about Obama and his policies, nor does it accurately reflect the role of science and its relationship with public policy, nor does it even give a plausible account of the last decade’s political developments. It doesn’t even tell you anything useful about climate change. It is all about Watts, her hopes and her prejudices, informed only by ignorance, hidden behind a veneer of scientific authority.

There’s another question perhaps Obama can answer by, like, yesterday: what are science correspondents actually for?

Biased Broadcasting Climate – Part 2

Over at the Harmless Sky blog, the sharp-eyed, and quick-minded Tony N has spotted an alarming piece of journalistic interference with Obama’s inauguration speech.

It would seem that someone at the BBC had taken the trouble to splice the tape so that half a sentence from paragraph 16 of the inauguration speech was joined on to half a sentence from paragraph 22, and this apparently continuous sound bite was completed by returning to paragraph 16 again to lift another complete sentence.

This is journalism at its worst.

Munich ReDux

Further to our post on the love-in between Munich Re insurance the BBC and Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern…

Over at Prometheus, Roger Pielke Jr presents statistics that contradict Munich Re’s statements on increases in the human and economic costs of natural disasters:

Even as populations continue to grow, there has been no upward trend in the loss of life, despite the tragic reality of major disasters around the world every year. Extracting a climate change signal in that data is just not possible.

Intriguingly, Pielke has collaborated with Munich Re’s Peter Hoppe on economic costs, resulting in a paper in Science which concluded that:

According to data collected by Munich Re, global weather-related economic losses (inflation adjusted, 2006 dollars) have increased from an annual average of U.S.$8.9 billion from 1977–1986 to U.S.$45.1 billion from 1997–2006. However, because of issues related to data quality, the low frequency of extreme event impacts, limited length of the time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions (S1). This conclusion is likely to remain unchanged in the near future.

In the BBC article we reported on, however, Hoppe is quoted as saying:

The weather machine runs into top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses.

And his Munich Re colleague Torsten Jeworrek said:

This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes. These, in turn, generate greater and greater losses because the concentration of values in exposed areas, like regions on the coast, is also increasing further throughout the world.

As Pielke puts it:

So Munich Re scientists (Hoeppe and E. Faust) publish in Science that attribution of losses to greenhouse gas emissions is not presently possible, and a Munich Re board member says that such attribution is “very probably” leading to more extreme events.

He concludes:

The fact is that 2008 disaster losses tell us nothing about human-caused climate change. They offer no pressing reason for passing a climate treaty, since such a treaty can have no real effect on the climate for decades anyway. And even if it did the main reason for increasing losses is social not climatic. There are far better reasons for a global climate treaty than reducing disaster losses, since there are far better approaches to that end (as we argue in our Science paper). Further, there may be good reason for Munich Re to want to increase its rates, but making grossly unsound appeals to the spectre of greenhouse gas impacts on disasters in the near term will both harm its own credibility as a business, and potenially harm efforts to secure a global climate treaty, as overselling the science will inevitably result in a backlash.

Read the whole thing here.

…Unless You're Filthy Stinking Rich

You can just imagine the editorial meetings that led up to BBC2 commissioning It’s Not Easy Being Green:

BBC executives: This grass-roots environmental movement is all very well, but we’re never going to save the planet if the middle classes don’t join the revolution. We need to make environmentalism inclusive.

So they hire Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Francis “Dick” Strawbridge MBE and his awfully nice family to host the show and give it some grass-roots street-cred by hiring rock-chick Lauren Laverne (who has come a long way since she described the Spice Girls as ‘Tory scum’) to present a weekly feature investigating ‘the posh end of the green market’. In this first episode she explores how to build an eco-friendly swimming pool for a mere £100k.

In the first episode of the third series, the Strawbridges tile their roofs with photovoltaics – a snip at £15k, of which the government contributes £2.5k. Bargain, says Strawbridge Sr:

Bearing in mind that you could easily spend about a thousand pounds a year for electricity for a house like ours, the panels will pay for themselves – eventually.

The BBC executives have got the wrong end of the stick entirely. If there is an environmental movement, it’s not grass-roots. It’s populated by the very Lieutenant-Colonels, rock-chicks, Crown Princes, trustafarians and ‘Tory scum‘ that the BBC are trying to reach out to. It’s Not Easy Being Green just gives privileged people one more reason to feel pretty damned pleased with themselves. The show is also mis-named; being green is easy – you only have to devote all your time, attention and resources to it, and make your lifestyle the subject of a reality TV show. It’s just a mystery why everyone else doesn’t do it.

Prosperous New Fear

Before we get stuck into 2009, we missed a spillage from the festive period that needs mopping up…

In a remarkably gullible news item, the BBC covered a new report revealing that 2008 was a ‘Huge year for natural disasters’:

The past year has been one of the most devastating ever in terms of natural disasters … climate change [is] boosting the destructive power of disasters like hurricanes and flooding

The report finds that:

Although there were fewer “loss-producing events” in 2008 than in the previous year, the impact of natural disasters was higher […]

More than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding, the most since 2004, the year of the Asian tsunami.

Meanwhile, overall global losses totalled about $200bn (£137bn), with uninsured losses totalling $45bn, about 50% more than in 2007.

This makes 2008 the third most expensive year on record, after 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, and 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina in the US.

The BBC article quotes expert Torsten Jeworrek:

“Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes,”

Thing is, Torsten Jeworrek is an expert in insurance, not climate. He is on the board of insurance giants Munich Re. And Munich Re are the authors of the new report. It goes without saying that insurance companies need to keep abreast of developments in risk if they are to provide a service for their clients. But it also goes without saying that generating alarm about those same risks is also to their advantage. To paraphrase what we have said before, fear of risk is to Munich Re what oil is to Exxon. Indeed, Munich Re says as much on its website:

Risk is our business: Among other things, we reinsure the risks connected with oil rigs, satellites and natural catastrophes, and those arising from the use of genetic engineering and information technology or from the management of companies.

Climate change is not the only issue Munich Re is whipping up alarm about. It also desires that we flap over other scares du jour, such as piracy…

Piracy reaches new dimensions: The frequency and severity of piracy attacks have reached alarming levels


Megacities extremely vulnerable to natural perils, technological risks, terrorism and environmental hazards / More risk awareness and greater transparency urgently needed with regard to hazard exposure / Munich Re presents its views at the UN’s World Conference on Disaster Reduction

and obesity…

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are spreading at an alarming rate around the world

But, mostly, it’s climate change…

10 April 2008
India: Increase in losses due to climate change / Board member Torsten Jeworrek: “In coming decades, the effects of climate change will make themselves felt particularly in emerging countries like India.”

climate change…

29 September 2008
Munich Re exhibition in Tokyo highlights risks and opportunities of global warming

climate change..

27 December 2007
Natural catastrophe figures for 2007: Higher losses despite absence of megacatastrophes, very many loss events / Overall economic losses of US$ 75bn / Board member Dr. Torsten Jeworrek: Loss figures in line with the rising trend in natural catastrophes, Munich Re is prepared

climate change…

July 2008
High death toll marks the 2008 half-year natural catastrophes figures

and climate change…

5 June 2007
Munich Re signs the “Declaration on Climate Change” of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative. / Munich Re Board member Torsten Jeworrek: “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. What we do today is crucial for future generations. Therefore, swift international action is urgently needed.” / Munich Re forecasts long-term increase in demand for risk protection as a result of climate change and growing concentrations of values.

And there’s plenty more climate change where those came from.

Munich Re is certainly not the first insurance company to try to cash in on climate alarm by generating more of it. Back in April 2007 we reported on the efforts of risk assessment giants Risk Management Solutions (RMS) to do the same. Bob Ward, RMS’s Director of Global Science Networks, was continuing a crusade against the dirty denialist industry – namely, Exxon and Martin Durkin – that he started while in his previous employment as Senior Manager for Policy Communication for Exxon-slayers the Royal Society.

What is surprising is that the BBC have deemed the witterings of an insurance company worthy of a news story, and moreover, that they have chosen to take those witterings entirely at face value. At the very least they could have wondered why earthquakes were lumped into the analysis or how much the figures were skewed by one devastating cyclone in Myanmar.

Torsten Jeworrek’s quotes – like the whole BBC story, in fact – are lifted directly from Munich Re’s press release. But then, perhaps the BBC didn’t have much choice (other than to ignore the story completely) because Munich Re haven’t actually made their report available. When we emailed them for a copy, media relations officer Alexander Mohanty replied that:

there is no additional report or publication.
Munich re’s annual report on natural catastrophes is a press relase only traditionally.
But we will publish a more in-depth report in march called ‘topics’.

The BBC has been known to argue that the existence of ‘the consensus’ on climate change means that they are not obliged to seek balancing viewpoints from anyone who doesn’t entirely sign up to it. With this story however, they seem to be going rather further than is necessary to live up to their own journalistic ideals. They back up Jeworrek’s comments with quotes from Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research, which are also lifted verbatim from the presser:

“It is now very probable that the progressive warming of the atmosphere is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity,” said Prof Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research.

“The logic is clear: when temperatures increase there is more evaporation and the atmosphere has a greater capacity to absorb water vapour, with the result that its energy content is higher.

“The weather machine runs into top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses.”

The company said world leaders must put in place “effective and binding rules on CO2 emissions” to curb climate change and ensure that “future generations do not have to live with weather scenarios that are difficult to control”.

Yes, ‘the logic is clear’…

– the world has been warming up a bit
– human activity probably has something to do with that
– some models say this might influence the frequency of severe weather events
– therefore, an expensive year for civilisation (and insurance companies) means that climate change is already happening
– therefore, we need a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions

Other than pointing out that Hoppe’s clear logic is clearly not, it’s hard to comment on the accuracy and rigour of Munich Re’s analysis, because, as we said, the analysis is not available for scrutiny. But it’s hard to see how an insurance company can have had more success than ‘the world’s 2500 top climate scientists’ at isolating the effect of climate change on the occurrence of severe weather events. But then again, perhaps we can look forward to the IPCC citing Munich Re on matters of climate-change induced weather patterns in its own reports in the future. And in a world where top scientists are wont to defer to economists on scientific matters of climate change, that is not such an unlikely possibility.

It is perhaps interesting that the economist in question, Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern, has rather a close working relationship with Munich Re. Understandably, Munich Re is rather proud of the fact that its dirty insurance money funds such a high profile environmentalist:

In 2008, Munich Re launched a cooperation with Professor Lord Nicholas Stern and the London School of Economics (LSE), the aim being to advance research into the economic impact of climate change.

And Prof Lord Sir Nicholas has nothing to be embarrassed about. Because nobody – least of all the BBC – seems at all bothered by any such conflict of interests. They are all too busy worrying about who Exxon is funding. Those who shriek the loudest about climate change – whether it’s insurance companies, Stern, the Royal Society, Lord Adair Turner or the Tickell dynasty – often have the most to gain from alarmism. It seems that the greens have been right all along: an economic tail really does wag the scientific dog.

Last BBC Show Standing?

Even the curmudgeonliest of climate realists need a break from complaining once in a while. So, no moaning about how BBC2 somehow managed to force a lesson in sustainability into a documentary about the behaviour of pygmy marmosets. No grumbling about how BBC R4’s PM show chose to mark the death of animator Oliver Postgate (who, having enchanted children for decades with such classics as The Clangers and Bagpuss, ended up trying to petrify them with green scaremongery) with an uncritical piece about his tin-pot ecopocalyptic prophesies. And no wingeing about BBC R4’s Open Book in which Adam Roberts, professor of English literature at London University and sci-fi author, addresses a question from listener Elizabeth Thorne:

In the past two years, I have had an eco-house built and have joined organisations here in Winchester which encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint, water use, etc. Please can you suggest any books which give a picture of how the planet might be in fifty to a hundred years time if overpopulation and over-use of the world’s resources continue as they are now? It could be a fictional account, as long as it’s based on scientific facts.

Professor Roberts does not let her down. His response must be music to the ears of anyone who has made sacrifices trying to save the planet and is in need of reminding why they should feel very pleased with themselves. His non-fiction recommendations are Alastair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water and Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees, both of which are, he assures Ms Thorne, ‘very scientifically rigorous’. We’ve mentioned Six Degrees before. Re Hell and High Water, we’ll just say that it’s hard to imagine how a book that the publishers describe as

A fascinating journey through early texts that speak to climate change – including the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Plato’s myth of Atlantis, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth – McIntosh reveals the psychohistory of modern consumerism. He shows how we have fallen prey to a numbing culture of violence and the motivational manipulation of marketing. To start to resolve what has become of the human condition we must get more real in facing up to despair and death. Only then will we discover the spiritual meaning of these our troubled times. Only then can magic, new meaning, and all that gives life, start to mend a broken world.

and which is written by fellow and erstwhile director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology, a ‘network for ecological and social transformation’ that insists that you remove your shoes at the door (no, really, we’ve been there) and offers

challenging courses for people who want to “be the change,” help organisations pursue greener, more ethical practices, and work towards tackling the root causes of global issues. Drawing on a holistic understanding of environmental and social systems, we develop practical solutions and influence new thinking. Committed to enduring, systemic change, our approach engages head, heart, and hand – integrating reason, passion, and action for a better world.

can have much to do with science at all.

Host Mariella Frostrup steers the discussion to fiction:

It’s funny, because they sound like the kind of books science fiction writers like perhaps yourself read before they start writing their books. Because of course increasingly science fiction books are based on the latest research, are they not?

Roberts does not let her down either:

Steve [Baxter, author of Flood] is one of the most famous of the contemporary science fiction writers on the science fiction scene. And one of the things he does is he roots his fiction very rigorously in the science. There are hard science fiction writers and there are soft science fiction writers. And Steve is one of the former. What happens in Flood, which is published this year, is that the sea levels start rising, and then continue rising. There’s a horrible inevitability about it as the waters get higher and higher. And in the early sections of the novel, the characters think, well, this will eventually even out and we’ll just have to live on the high lands, but of course – and again, not to give anything away – it becomes apparent as the book goes on that the waters are just going to rise until they’ve gone higher even than Everest, and people have to make the best they can out of their situation.

Everest! Gosh, even Hansen doesn’t go that far, and nobody can accuse him of being rooted ‘very rigorously in the science’.

So instead of complaining about all that, here’s a jolly post about a conspicuous and refreshing absence of sanctimonious environmentalism on the BBC where there could so easily have been so much.

BBC3’s Last Man Standing is now well into its second series. The idea is that six fit young chaps from Britain and the USA, each endowed with more than their fair share of abs and serotonin, travel the world to compete with remote tribes on their own turf and at their own sports.

Ed is an Eton and Oxford graduate and modern pentathlete with floppy hair; JJ is a US traffic cop and cage-wrestler (like wrestling, but in a cage); Jarvis is, we are told, ‘used to winning’ despite his being a US rugby international; Joey plays soccer, loves his mom, and says he used to be a street-fighter; Wolé is a London fireman, amateur boxer and brick shithouse; Murray is a kite-surfing hippy with more serotonin than all the rest of them put together.

So, the Village People take on some people from a village. In Nepal, they run a high-altitude endurance race with a 25kg rock strapped to their backs, in India they wrestle in a sandpit, in Ethiopia they try to knock out their opponents with big sticks, and in the Philippines the aim is to kick each others’ lights out. Our heroes’ nutritional advantage – they tend to tower over their hosts – is balanced by the fact that they have only a week or so to learn the moves, or to quite literally acclimatise, to what the locals have been doing all their lives. Blood is spilled, ribs, fingers and knees are broken.

In Series 1, New Age fitness guru Rajko puts an axe through his foot while helping his hosts slash and burn a patch of rainforest. And still not a mention of sustainability. Slash and burn is just something else that needs doing around the village, not a sign that humans are trashing pristine rainforest. Viewers are free to make their own minds up on that. As are the competitors, whose ambivalence on the issue suggests that they are not expected to toe some directorial party line. These tribes are not portrayed as noble savages living in harmony with nature, whose livelihoods or very existence is under threat from encroaching western civilisation or climate change, but as fellow humans whom it might be interesting to get to know.

In true boys’-own style, Rajko ends up slogging his cricket team to victory while wearing a comedy foot bandage. Yep, cricket, Papua New Guinea-style, introduced by colonialists not so long ago, and now involving a very hard carved wooden ball, and about a thousand singing, dancing fielders, and who knows, perhaps the inspiration for Twenty20. One World, eh.

While Last Man is about what people have in common, its sister show Tribal Wives is all about our differences. Here, the premise is that unfulfilled western women – they variously have troubles with boyfriends, alcohol, low self-esteem (although not so low that they’re ashamed of flaunting it on national TV) or general doubts about the point of Western civilisation – are packed off to the sticks to find meaning through immersion into a simple tribal life, where a lack of corrupting commercialism leaves them free to walk miles daily to fetch water and firewood, run away from spiders and scorpions, and get their tits out. And find meaning they do, of course. It’s the least that’s expected of them. As is their distaste for female circumcision, which all the tribes seem to practise, but which the producers dare not suggest might also have something to do with a lack of development. Once restored, they all seem quite relieved to be going home, but promise to come back and visit one day. (TV critic Charlie Brooker lays into these ‘mission documentaries’ hysterically in the latest edition of his Screenwipe series).

Last Man Standing doesn’t have a moral mission. It’s only mission is to entertain. Which is why it is so entertaining. All it expects from its participants is to try and win. It is about nothing more than a bunch of people from very different backgrounds meeting up and doing something they all love, and for which they are all prepared to suffer. The result is that it’s about much more than that, while Tribal Wives is about very little at all.

Next week, a 40km ocean canoe race off Papua New Guinea. It’s the last of the series, but they’re all still available on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). And then maybe there’ll be a third series, in which athletes from remote tribes around the world compete with us on our own turf at our own minority sports – make-do-and-mend, Razor Wars, reduce-reuse-recycle, tread-lightly-on-the-Earth, that sort of thing.

Cold is the new warm

When is a short term trend not a short term trend? When it’s an upward anomaly.

James Randerson in the Guardian tells us that,

This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.

But just when you thought it was safe to rush out to buy a guilt-free 4×4… <scary music>

The relatively chilly temperatures compared with recent years are not evidence that global warming is slowing however, say climate scientists at the Met Office. “Absolutely not,” said Dr Peter Stott, the manager of understanding and attributing climate change at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. “If we are going to understand climate change we need to look at long-term trends.”

Here’s a curious thing… Whether or not global warming ever existed, if ‘relatively chilly temperatures are not ‘evidence that global warming is slowing’, then what is?

That’s not to say that cooler temperatures ‘prove’ that there’s no global warming, but that cooler temperatures must be evidence that ‘global warming is slowing’. The difference is between ‘evidence’ on the one hand, and ‘proof’ on the other. Evidence can support contradictory hypotheses.

If this was mere journalistic oversight, that’s one thing – even though Randerson, one of the Guardian’s science correspondents, with a PhD in evolutionary genetics, really really ought to know the difference between evidence and proof, and what they stand for. But if the argument belongs to Peter Stott, then it surely raises questions about his partiality. ‘Absolutely not‘? Cooling temperatures absolutely are evidence for the hypothesis that there is no global warming underway, necessarily.

Prof Myles Allen at Oxford University who runs the website, said he feared climate sceptics would overinterpret the figure. “You can bet your life there will be a lot of fuss about what a cold year it is. Actually no, its not been that cold a year, but the human memory is not very long, we are used to warm years,” he said, “Even in the 80s [this year] would have felt like a warm year.”

Allen is right to say that people have short memories, but he is wrong to think that it’s only sceptics who have them, and make a fuss about exceptional years. For example, Anderson continues,

The Met Office predicted at the beginning of the year that 2008 would be cooler than recent years because of a La Niña event – characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is the mirror image of the El Niño climate cycle. The Met Office had forecast an annual global average of 14.37C.

Anderson has a short memory. So does Allen. Scientists at the Met office are so keen to make a big deal out of unexpected temperatures that they ‘overinterpret the figures’ before they have even happened.

At the begining of 2007, a BBC article informed the world that

“The world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007, the UK’s Met Office says.”

Such ‘overinterpretation’…

The global surface temperature is projected to be 0.54C (0.97F) above the long-term average of 14C (57F), beating the current record of 0.52C (0.94F), which was set in 1998.

The annual projection was compiled by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia.

Such ‘a fuss about what a hot year it is’… (even though it hadn’t happened yet).

We have actually run this forecast three times, updating it every month… and it is completely stable.”

But didn’t the Hadley Centre’s own Peter Stott just tell us that we ought to be looking at long-term trends? And yet, a forecast of a short term trend is considered newsworthy. Double standards are rife in climate science activism.

The Hadley Centre has been issuing the annual forecast for the past seven years and says it has just a 0.06C margin of error.

Eight months later, and the Met Office’s confident prediction was shown to be utter bunk.  Temperatures were falling. They revised their predictions, saying that they had created a new, more powerful computer model for predicting the future.

Powerful computer simulations used to create the world’s first global warming forecast suggests temperature rises will stall in the next two years, before rising sharply at the end of the decade.

But as we suggested earlier in the year, the incautious statements issued by Met Office scientists looked less like the work of scientific enquiry, and more like post-hoc speculation about which way the weather would turn.

In January 2007, the Met Office backed the wrong horse – El Niño. When La Niña emerged as the favourite, they changed their bets. This wasn’t sophisticated computer modelling. This was gambling by gamblers posing in lab coats. It was a safe bet that La Niña’s effects would last until 2009.

In order to wrong-foot sceptics, activist climate scientists (for that is what they must be if they are not agnostic about global warming) have had to reinterpret the evidence. Any downward tendency is waved away as short-term ‘natural variation’, caused by La Niña. This creates a casuality for the alarmists – it means that the significance of the record temperature in 1998 is diminished – clearly it was caused by El Niño. But on the other hand, ruling out the ’98 El Niño as ‘natural variation’ allows the claim that temperatures have increased since 1998 to be made.

Such chopping-and-changing appears to be the stock-in-trade of climate scientists and Guardian hacks. But this is because so much political capital is invested in the direction of lines on graphs representing weather statistics. And this is particularly clear in the pages of the Guardian, who have, over the last 12 or so months been especially keen to remind us that cooling trends are ‘not evidence that global warming is slowing’. There’s Randerson’s article, for example. Then there’s an article by Ian Sample, also a science correspondent, who last year reported that

The forecast of a brief slump in global warming has already been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that the world is not heating. Climate scientists say the new high-precision forecast predicts temperatures will stall because of natural climate effects that have seen the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific cool over the past couple of years.

Then, earlier this year, Fred Pearce, environmental writer and author of The Last Generation: How nature will take her revenge for climate change, said

A Germany study published earlier this month predicts the world will cool over the coming decade. British climate modellers at the Met Office don’t go so far. They think nature’s cooling will be more than counterbalanced by the warming effect of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But nobody is sure. In any case, we can expect the deniers to make the most of this opportunity to pour cold water on the whole climate change narrative. No year has yet been hotter than 1998, they will say. True: it was a huge El Niño year. Now we are on the way back down, they will say. Nonsense. The underlying trend remains upwards; and as every decade passes, natural cycles can do less and less to counter the growing human influence on temperature.

As we pointed out about the dramatisation of the movement of Arctic ice extent recently, the progression of curves representing climate statistics are the dynamic driving political discourse. The unfolding, present-tense narrative of lines on charts fuels the commentary about the conflict between the bad-minded ‘deniers’, and the honest scientists, seeking to destroy or save the world respectively.

The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t.

As the comments supplied by scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) about sea ice extent and the Met Office’s scientists careless posturing demonstrate, they are complicit in the politicisation of the climate debate. That is to say they are not impartial. They are not agnostic about climate change. And they are not disinterested observers of nature. Climate science is not a value-free investigation of the material universe.

Climate scientists and science correspondents imbue statistics with undue political significance. Therefore, they have to resort to use combative rhetoric when the trends offer conflicting evidence they cannot yet explain. Rather than contradicting themselves about the significance of short term trends, and moving the goal posts constituting long terms trends, climate scientists ought to be distancing themselves from the political significance of their work. Because to do otherwise is to legitimise the very ‘deniers’ they seek to diminish. If ‘climate science’ is where politics happens, then it is not only reasonable to ask if changes in the direction of change do represent a weakness in the prevailing view, it is essential.

Of course, a trend of 0.14 below average does not represent a static climate, but neither does an anomaly of 0.54C represent the dawn of a new, hostile geological epoch. Fools rush in to make statements about what such small numbers mean about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.