The innumeracy of the right

I wrote a while ago that most of the denialists touting the line that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995” wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them[1]. There’s an even better example in the Letters page of today’s Fin, where JL Goldsworthy of Woorim writes “A carbon tax will save about 0.00001 per cent of anthropogenic emissions, if that”.

We can easily check this estimate. Australia is currently responsible for about 2 per cent of global emissions, and the carbon tax is intended to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels (a target that Tony Abbott also ostensibly supports). Business as usual growth will be at least 25 per cent, so the policy goal is an emissions cut of 30 per cent. Primary school arithmetic tells us that 0.02*0.3 = 0.006 or 0.6 per cent. That is, JL Goldsworthy of Woorim is out by a factor of 60 000.

While this is an extreme case, it’s pretty much routine for the rightwing side of the climate debate. Ludicrous numbers like Goldsworthy’s can be found on just about any rightwing blog you care to visit. I’ve pointed out similarly massive errors by Andrew Bolt, Greg Hunt and Terry McCrann among others.

And they don’t care. The point of the debate is not to get things right but to keep up a steady supply of talking points so that those who have been sucked in by the delusions their opinion leaders spout never catch up with the refutations.

Update Unsurprisingly, this number appears to come from the ludicrous, but dangerous, Alan Jones, already notable for the corruption of Cash for Comment, and for his promotion of race riots, thankfully a rare phenomenon in Australia. It’s hard to say anything good about Jones. But the “respectable” right, exemplified by David Flint and John Howard, embrace and defend him. And not a single self-described “sceptic” has tried to correct this absurd and dishonest claim. If there is a single person on the anti-science side of the debate who cares in the slightest for truth, this is an ideal opportunity to step forward – Bob Carter, Ian Plimer, Don Aitkin and William Kininmonth come to mind as candidates.

fn1. The minority who do know what statistical significance means, and keep circulating this spurious (and now factually false) talking point are even worse. I’ll come back to them in another post.

37 thoughts on “The innumeracy of the right

  1. I don’t think Ralph Hunt has much to say on the subject since he died recently if I recall correctly. But Greg Hunt certainly pumps out the dis-information as hard as he can go.

    D’oh! Fixed thanks. Of course, I’m always grateful to have the chance to correct errors

  2. ” the carbon tax is intended to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels”
    Perhaps JL Goldsworthy of Woorim does not believe a carbon dioxide price of $26 per tonne (with compensation) will change people’s behavior or drive renewables.

  3. It’s even worse – many of these paid-up deniers are trained in maths, engineering, science, or economics. The only numeracy they are getting right is the bank account numbers they’ve lodged with their Big Coal (or whatever carbon intensive profit centre is stroking their stricken egos) paymasters.

  4. An ignorant propaganda campaign of falsehoods and outright intimidaton* is being directed against climate science, environmental science and science in general. This campaign is too well organised with money, supporters, media access and support along with spurious talking points and public disinformation meetings to be an accident.

    The question is this. Who comprises the group of powerful interests running this campaign? To paraphrase Julian Assange (if I can) and take his point into my context, Assange spoke about such forces being not a classical conspiracy but a loose coalition of powerful financial, corporate and lobby interests prepared to do anything to maintain and extend their power and profits.

    Really, until the common citizens (workers and their families) can take back control of democracy from its subornment by corporate intersts, we have no chance of turning this around. It does need a new political social-democratic revolution of sorts which would involve the programmatic breaking up of corporate, financial and oligarchical power.

    *Note: Canberra climate scientists have received threats and been moved at work to a more secure location.

  5. @chrisl

    So, ChrisL do you think he would have looked more sensible had he written “I predict that a $20/tonne tax will reduce emissions by 0.00005 per cent” which is what your suggestion implies. Or did, you like JLG, just not bother to do the math.

  6. the $400 million found in NSW after the almighty stink raised after their new govt tried to reneg on a contact.
    where did that come from?

    people are changing their behaviour anyway.

  7. Just a nitpick: according to Google you’ve inserted an extra zero in JL Goldsworthy of Woorim’s estimate, though the error factor of 60,000 is correct!

    So many zeros I lost count! Fixed, thanks

  8. As has been pointed out before, the casual disregarding of the truth when making new talking points is a classic example of “bullshit”, as in the essay “On Bullshit” by philosopher Harry Frankfurt [fn1]. The point is that it is the end result of using the bullshit that matters to them, not whether it is factually accurate or not. It is just a rhetorical weapon for bolstering their otherwise hopelessly weak position.

    Logic should dictate that if someone’s position in a largely scientific argument is very weak and the other side is, on the other hand, err scientifically based, and exceptionally strong, then switching sides is the correct behaviour. Instead, they want to dig their heels in, and to do that successfully they need new “facts” supporting their argument or tearing down the opponent’s argument. When such facts are spare, they must do the next best thing—invent some! And thus they enter the twilight world of the ideology of “Bullshit”.

    fn1: “On Bullshit”, Harry Frankfurt, Raritan Quarterly Review, Vol 6, No 2 (Fall 1986).

  9. I should just like to comment in passing that the proper use of statistics is hard. I did statistics at university and flunked it. I’m no Rhodes Scholar, but I’m probably about as smart as the average Australian (okay, a bit below average but I function without a sheltered workshop.) My point is that the correct usage of statistics requires mathematical abilities that are beyond a large minority of the populace.

    I’m at peace with my limitations, so I don’t use statistics; I suspect that most people are NOT at peace with their limitations, and the net result is you get idiocy like this.

  10. @Scott

    … I did statistics at university and flunked it … My point is that the correct usage of statistics requires mathematical abilities that are beyond a large minority of the populace.

    I think you’ve just earned a compliment for that one Scott, so here’s one:- I’d say that if a largish minority of delusional climate science denialists were half as smart as the writer of such a comment, there’d be an appreciably smaller number of fools and shills comprising their majority. It’s a significantly unlikely “if”.

  11. Donald Oats#9

    This reminds me of a somewhat right wing friend I used to have (note past tense). After a few drinks we’d often end up in a heated political discussion over some current event or other and I’d almost always end up on the losing side. For someone who was no more intelligent or better informed than me, he was always able to pull out some mind boggling fact or statistic that would put me on the back foot and leave my argument floundering. Of course with the advent of the internet every fact is verifiable in quick smart fashion, and low and behold it turns out he was just a bullsh!tter extraordinaire.

    Now I don’t want to turn the particular into the general but, proffesional politicians excepted, this does seem to be a right wing trait. My left wing friends go out of there way to place caveats, “ifs”, “buts” and “notwithstandings” around every statement, to be sure of being as factually accurate as possible, while those on the right are happy to play fast and loose with the truth.

    Even those like Pilger tend to commit sins of ommision rather than complete fabrication, and it’s interesting to note the horrified and hypocritical media reaction to Michael Moore’s polemics, when he bends reality to suit his argument. I sometimes wonder if this is the direction the left needs to take to get it’s message across. Where brainwashing entertainment is more effective than thoughtful education, but it worries me where this kind of compromising of values would lead.

  12. Scott#11

    From my experience studying statistics, I suspect you were actually getting all your exam answers correct, but it was the questions which were wrong.

  13. Actually, I think there are some pretty big problems in the standard (classical/frequentist) approach to statistics, which are exemplified by the absurdly confusing notion of statistical significance. But the Bayesian alternative isn’t very satisfactory either, because it starts with subjective concepts of belief, which makes it difficult to present the arguments in objective terms.

  14. Belief or otherwise in Global Warming isn’t a “right” or “left” political matter. Certainly not in the traditional definition of left & right. Nor, outside the chattering class, is the matter of global warming/climate change/whatever a “left/right” divide.
    PLENTY of hard core left wingers in my area know that global warming is a load of bunkum. And though not as many, some economically/politically right leaning actually believe in global warming.

    As an aside, with the odd “exception proves the rule” example in either direction, innumeracy tends to be a hallmark of the left, not the right.

  15. PrQ

    so the policy goal is an emissions {cut} of 30 per cent

    The 2020 projection is sometimes quoted as 696MtCo2 and the target 530MtCO2 so 166/696 = 23.85%. This doesn’t change the seriousness of the error by JLG by much.

    My figure might not be the most up to date of course.

  16. @John Quiggin
    I think the Bayesian approach is just more honest about subjectivity. Frequentists indulge in a hopeless Victorian quest for the objective. Bayesians just admit that we all have prior beliefs about the likelihood of different assertions, and use statistical evidence to update belief. It’s quite right that if two people start with different prior beliefs in the existence of some effect and then they see positive evidence that that effect exists, the initially more skeptical person should still be more so than the other, but less so than they were previously. It’s also quite right that under the weight of accumulated evidence, people’s beliefs should converge.

    I would like to see Andrew Bolt plug in a skeptical value for his prior belief about AGW and then use Bayesian techniques on all the evidence accumulated over the last 30 years. I wonder what his final belief would be, if he honestly abided by the calculation?

  17. Things like the remarkable citation rate of John Ioannidis’ 2005 paper “”Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” hint to us that many of the very brightest people around may believe that the complexities of grappling with statistics run deep. Very deep. (There’s a good article in “The Atlantic” , Nov 2010, about Ioannidis, with particular reference to medical research).

  18. Hal9000 :
    Shorter SATP: itz uvver peepul wot is illitrit, not me and mi klevver maits.

    SATP appears to have got everything mixed up in a drunken stupor.

    I suppose that’s one escape.

  19. @Steve at the Pub
    ‘innumeracy tends to be a hallmark of the left, not the right’

    How on earth can you know such a thing? This appears to be prejudice passed off as fact.

    Conversely the idea that innumeracy is mostly a feature of opinion makers on the political right can be justified quite well. I can point to a number of right-wing talking points advocated by prominent conservative voices that are based on convenient misunderstanding of statistics. I make a point of trying to be aware of similar flaws on the left and they are relatively few and far between.

    Secondly SATP if you look into to substantial polsis literature on what determines voter preference you will see that one of the single biggest factor that divides people along a left/right axis is education. The more of it you have, the more likely you are to be on the left. How does this square with your observation? Do more educated people make more statistical errors? If you believe this, try Googling ‘Dunning Kruger effect’.

  20. @sam
    Sam I agree with you that Bayesians have strong theoretical or philosophical advantages over frequentists. However if you said to Bolt that your global warming model is ‘subjective’ I suspect he could come up with a politically powerful soundbite on the issue. It would be nice to force him to crunch the numbers with his own priors though.

    Also (correct me if I am wrong here) I think that a property of Bayesian analysis is that if two individuals have different priors, there need not be convergence in their posterior distributions, even as the the amount of evidence tends to infinity. Thus you and I could fundamentally disagree on something and support our positions using Bayesian stats, where we both have access to the same set of infinite data.

  21. Nick R, posterior distributions can never converge in cases of fundamental prior disagreement, as where one individual regards some particular p as impossible, and another regards it as certain. But in standard cases, with sufficient data, posterior distributions will converge.

  22. @Jill Rush There is a clear lapse of logic when irrigators call for the dismantling of water control devices, ostensibly to restore the river estuary, whilst maintaining upstream water control devices.

  23. “Alan Jones: So, .04 of a per cent of the air is carbon dioxide, 3% of that .04 of a per cent is human activity, and Australia produce 1½% of the 3%, so we are producing…
    .000018 of carbon dioxide.
    — 2GB, the Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 25th May, 2011”

    And of course, 0.00018% (Jones) rounds to 0.0001% (Goldsworthy). In the context, a mere doubling of the figure hardly seems worth bothering about.

  24. @AlanWood Stunning how many errors Jones can manage in one sentence.

    And, sad to say, the econjourno Alan Wood, who was a smart guy, ended up as a full-blown delusional conspiracy theorist on this stuff. Being on the right makes smart people stupid, and stupid people more obstinately stupid.

  25. Where is this Productivity Commission report on Carbon Prices that was supposed to be released today? Looks like missing in action.

  26. Gee Freelander, it wasn’t even midday before you declared it MIA.

    It’s out now apparently.

  27. most of the denialists touting the line that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995?

    Phil Jones made an honest mistake, unlike denialists who are well-endowed with dishonest mistakes. Jones would have done better to say “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995 that I am aware of”.

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