May, the Farce be With You

by | Sep 7, 2009

We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]

MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.

BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.

MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?

BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.

MK: And you…

BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.

MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.

BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.

MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.


So here’s what we understand from the interview.

In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.

In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.

Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?

Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.

Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?


  1. geoffchambers

    Lord May expresses himself rather more coherently on the same subject at
    (Do you like the title? There must be a sceptical mole at the Guardian).

    The article starts: “Religious leaders should play a frontline role in mobilising people to take action against global warming, according to a leading scientist”. And it goes on to cite experiments using “what scientists call ‘game theory’” (that’s how you have to talk to Guardian readers nowadays) to show that scientists have discovered that it would be better if we were nice to one another. It’s all part of a Cunning Plan to get us to stop arguing and do what we’re told by experts, in this case Lord May, who is trying to provide established religion with the moral authority it so sadly lacks.

    His incoherence in the radio interview may stem from the fact that he seems to want to link the Darwin bicentenary with his own Clark Kent-like efforts to save the planet, via an exposition of the quasi-evolutionary theory of the origin of religion popularised by Sir James Frazer in “The Golden Bough”. Then maybe he realises he’s going to put off the very believers he’s hoping to enrol, and burbles to a halt.

    Either that or he’s completely pissed.

  2. Climate Wank

    I was interested to listen to Home Planet to day on whether skeptics should be allowed to hold up actionn on GW;
    Prof Sue Buckingham, Director of Centre for Human Geography at Brunel University was all for the government taking the lead on GW – “making unpopular decisions”( to which I would have loved to have ask if that included “undemocratic decisions”) but actually there was fair defence of skepticism as scientific as well as making a distinction about the politics

  3. geoffchambers

    Maurizio Morabito has an interesting article on May’s programme at
    It’s called President of British Science Association Casually Strolls towards Fascism.

  4. geoffchambers

    This is slightly off-topic, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. When it comes to eco-fruitcakes, its always Greener on the other side of the Channel. Michel Rocard, ex-prime minister and currently unemployed, was given the job of preparing a report on France’s response to global warming. Here is the beginning of his interview on the French radio news channel at the moment of presenting his report.

    “The main thing is that the earth is protected from excessive solar radiation by the Greenhouse effect, which is a kind of protective cloud, a sort of gassy protection in the atmosphere which is fairly opaque to the rays of the sun. And when we emit CO2 or methane or NO2 – which is stuff which is found in agricultural fertiliser – we attack these gases, and reduce the protection from the greenhouse effect, and the planet slowly becomes a frying pan, so that our great-great-great-great-grandchildren won’t survive. Life will become extinct in seven or eight generations. It’s frightening”.

  5. Alex Cull

    That’s rather an interesting little just-so story from Lord May. A summary might be: “Nullius in verba – except when we want to influence people’s behaviour and make them do what we want.”

    Climate Wank, thanks for the link to the BBC radio programme, it was well worth listening to. Professor Stott’s quotation from John Stuart Mill is rather apt here:

    “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.”
    -John Stuart Mill

    Geoff – great quote from Michel Rocard! I love the bit about the planet slowly becoming a frying pan. “Life will become extinct” – or it may just become a giant omelette au fromage.

  6. TomC

    This is a superb example of what Ayn Rand termed the “mysticist subjectivist collectivist” ideology, as opposed to that of the “objectivist capitalist individualist”. The fact that an intellectual such as Lord May should choose to abandon the evasion and pretence that has hitherto been necessary to disguise the agenda of the socialists is very telling.

    Philosophically, there are three methods by which men might obtain knowledge: Intrinsic, or revealed by a higher power; Subjective, or derived from human conciousness; or Objective, determined by reality and interpreted rationally and logically by man’s mind.

    The first two, which are to do with religion and Kant’s evil interpretation of subjective reality, are demonstrably false, while the third method is the only valid theory of obtaining knowledge, since it can be reduced to philosophical axioms.

    The likes of Lord May have for centuries attempted to present their arguments whilst evading or avoiding the reality of the above. Not so in this instance. This can only be a good thing for freedom and Enlightenment values – our enemies are facilitating the destruction of their own arguments on a philosophical level: this is the only means by which they might be defeated.

  7. Editors

    Tom – ‘the agenda of the socialists’?

    Our argument here is that what the likes of May produce is not the expression of anything as coherent or ideological as anything resembling ‘socialism’, and is certainly not purposive.

    His appeal to game theory is rather unfortunate for your argument: much of it was produced by, of all organisations, the RAND Corporation, members of which had hoped it might reveal a concrete basis for individualism. (E.G. Nash’s ‘Fuck You Buddy’ game.) It failed.

    What the use of game theory does when it is employed to legitimise either regulation (perhaps through the ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenarios) or the individualist argument (perhaps through the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’) is reduce humans to the automata that participate in the model. Either way, the imposition of the logic of games is not liberating.

    So let’s be clear about this: If we’re looking for continuity between historic political movements and May’s thinking, he owes more to ‘bourgeois economics’ and to ‘capitalism’ than to ‘socialism’.

    The confidence you have in the assertion that there are just three possible modes of obtaining knowledge seems a little premature, and unfair to Kant. ‘Evil’ and ‘demonstrably false’ are claims that will shock the philosophical world, particularly those who might (and, if I may say so) far more easily say the same of Rand! Kant may well have his faults. But to rule out his entire works is just a little too… dogmatic? (And he might have something interesting to say about dogma.)

    After all, Kant rules out the first mode for us (as the product of dogma). And as you’ve framed the second and third, they are either poorly expressed, or not exclusive categories. Subjectivity is a necessary condition for reason, for interpretation, for doing logic, and for experiencing the objective world… as Kant tells us.

    Be careful how you wield those ‘Enlightenment values’.

  8. George Carty

    I’m sorry, but I cannot support Randian Objectivists just because they oppose environmentalism, any more than I can support Nazism for opposing Stalinism.

    (Objectivism and Nazism do after all share a toxic root – Social Darwinism.)

  9. TomC

    Well, perhaps I should know better than to mention that obviously hated and feared name. All the same, it has the benefit of outing peoples’ real issues for some reason.

    Editors – over the months and years, you have consistently argued for the very same individualist, Enlightenment values on which you seek to attack me. You have also consistently and correctly linked environmentalist issues with collectivist ideology. These two facts are plastered all over your archives.

    Do I take it that you simply object to the manner in which I have stated my case? If so, that’s fine by me. If not, I remain particularly confused.

    By the way, the philosophical world can be as shocked as it likes for all I care. I think Kant was the most evil villain in history regardless of any other ideas he may have had.

    George – I’m not an Objectivist, but you take the prize for the most profoundly ridiculous comments I’ve seen in a long time. Firstly Stalinism and Nazism are variations of the same evil ideological premises, and secondly Objectivists argue the exact opposite of these. To claim that they have some sort of similar philosophical root is therefore grotesquely absurd.

  10. Dennis A

    I notice Bob May is on the Climate Change Committee along with several friends from the Grantham Institute. These guys really have it sewn up don’t they?

  11. Editors

    Tom – Editors – over the months and years, you have consistently argued for the very same individualist, Enlightenment values on which you seek to attack me.

    We are flattered that you see ‘enlightenment values’ in our posts here. But we haven’t been pursuing an individualist, or otherwise anti-collectivist criticism of environmentalism. We’re not convinced that they are particularly useful categories in this case.

    There does seem to be a tendency amongst some critics of environmentalism to see history as divided between the collectivist/individualist camps, with all the ‘evil’ produced by the former. This somehow turns Kant, Stalinists, Nazis, and Environmentalists as all part of the same continuity, and therefore somehow equivalents.

    But as we attempted to show, things aren’t so straightforward. May uses many of the ideas produced by the Rand Corporation; the Malthusianism of May’s arguments has its origins in Adam Smith.

    It looks like you’re more interested in imposing these categories over a view of history and the present than you are interested in understanding why or how they became expedient or were legitimised at different times and in different circumstances. In other words, it seems that dogma drives your argument. It is as though collectivism itself, acts on people, and ideas throughout history can be understood, as it were ‘in a vacuum’. This is precisely what we criticise May for: he sees people as automata that respond obediently to ‘ideologies’ as though they were parts of a machine – just as the people at the RAND Corporation such as Nash seemed to. This kind of idea, imposed on people, is a tyranny whether it is used for the purposes of individualism, or collectivism, or to ‘save the planet’.

    It may well be possible to criticise Kant for some of his philosophical arguments. But you don’t. You merely say that he is ‘the most evil villain in history’. Others of a similar persuasion have said similar things here about other thinkers, such as Marx, such as ‘environmentalism is a rehashing of Marxism’, and that it too is ‘demonstrably false’. Again, it may well be possible to criticise Marx, but is it so easy to show that his work is ‘demonstrably false’? Every word? Every theory? Every argument? Again, there, it seemed that the test of a theory’s validity was whether it was an argument which tended to produce an argument for individualism or collectivism – as though these two stood themselves for ‘true’ and ‘false’, and as though it didn’t matter how Marx or Kant reach their conclusions. So much for metaphysics. And so much for rationalism. It seems that, for Randists at least, ‘axiomatic concepts’ exist prior to experience. Rand ought to be disappointed.

    So why is Kant ‘the most evil villain in history’?

  12. Robert Wood


    the Malthusianism of May’s arguments has its origins in Adam Smith.

    Ezplain Please!!!

  13. Editors

    Robert – Ezplain Please!!!

    Thomas Malthus, student of Smith, developed Smith’s ideas and applied them to his understanding of poverty and population. It’s hardly a secret. Here’s a link to help you out:“adam+smith”

  14. Robert Wood

    Climate Resistors:

    I find that I am getting into a classic British “Class Action” here.

    I was a grammar school boy, smart, but of the lower classes. I left the UK to escape the classism that still, apparently, does exist. The astonishing thing is, though, that it is the bourgeois that are the snobby-wobbies, forming their own elite based upon comfortable bureaucratic service in organisations that just suck up money, and are answerable to no one. Yet these same elites will justify themselves with talk of fighting elites and spreading wealth, at the same time as they concentrate power and wealth amongst themselves.

    OK, having just read what I wrote, then I should not be surprised; this is natural human behaviour. Machiavelli I wish were beside my side at this moment.

  15. Editors

    Robert, this might worry you, given your statements on another post, about socialists…

    The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Ch 1. Bourgeois and Proletarians.

  16. George Carty

    Here’s another thought-provoking Marxist quote:

    “A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in turn needs to be justified. From the Marxian point of view, which expresses the historic interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.” – Leon Trotsky

    Why did the left turn against progress? Did it tear itself apart, because the desires of the middle-class people who adopted left-wing ideology to cultivate an image of themselves as “caring” clashed with the (largely materialistic) desires of working-class people themselves? “The Gods That Failed” by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson made this argument.

  17. Derek D

    May’s philosophical droppings are commonly known as the Hegelian Dialectic. It dates back to the 18th century and was the basis for Marxism and communism. The basic principle is that humans need to be in constant conflict, or working against some sort of impending tragedy in order to be productive. Sounds cerebral and philosophical and all, problem is Hegel was no philosopher, he was an overeducated conman. And not surprisingly, the practice of his principles involves manipulating people with a created threat in order to be made more productive for the benefit of those perpetuating the ruse. Marx, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Al Gore were/are experts at this.

    May is clearly a shameless manipulator, or thinks we all are stupid, because he is basically repeating the dialect word for word. He is clearly committed to its principles, and knowing how despised these ideas are in philosophical circles, apparently thinks his viewers are too dumb to recognize them as such. Though perhaps the best proof that he is full of shit is his invocation of Evolutionary theory. Sure he floats a thoughtful anecdote and works in evolution to make it seem profound. Nonetheless Evolution is perhaps the single most contradictory scientific theory to Anthropogenic Global Warming, in that the assumptions of the two cannot be rectified in any way. Evolution requires change. Changes in conditions, and the subsequent adaptation to them by organisms is a core principle of evolution. In no way shape or form can these principles by successfully merged with a theory that assumes millions of years of constant temperatures, a fixed atmosphere, and no extinction of species. Or that any such change will yield dire consequences for living beings.

    My personal education and experience has been exclusively in the sciences and language. As such these cleverly worded junk-science and junk-philosophy cons are immediately recognizable to me. But the average, reader/viewer/watcher will be easily moved by such fancy language and feigned profoundness. And what that tells me clearly is that AGW is a lie, it is an intentional lie, and the underlying intent is to fool us and use us. And that is why I hate the whole idea of it. I’m long past the “is it true or not” arguments and well on my way to “what is the end game”. As good skeptics you all need to do the same. Arguing on blogs with knuckleheads who believe this kind of pap is a worthless distraction. Investigation and exposure into the real perpetrators and real intent of this ruse is may literally be critical to the course of all mankind. As you know all mankind is at risk of suffering major quality of life changes as required by the Gods of Green. We must fight! Tirelessly and to the bitter end!

  18. Editors

    Tom C was worried that Kant was the ‘most evil villain in history’. Now Derek wants to say that it was in fact Hegal who set the way for Marx, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Al Gore, and of course, May.

    And, like Tom C, Derek takes a poorly-understood metaphysical claim to tie up all the baddies in history into one camp. ‘The basic principle is that humans need to be in constant conflict, or working against some sort of impending tragedy in order to be productive’, he says. And then this:

    “Investigation and exposure into the real perpetrators and real intent of this ruse is may literally be critical to the course of all mankind. As you know all mankind is at risk of suffering major quality of life changes as required by the Gods of Green. We must fight! Tirelessly and to the bitter end!”

    Derek is either joking, or is Glen Beck.

  19. John Bailo

    Science is succinct. The best papers are short. They don’t argue, the declare. This is what I saw. This is how it is. This is what I think. Go ahead, prove me wrong. They don’t have 300 pages of boiler plate about what a great new paradigm it all is….


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