The relative rationality of Malcolm Roberts

Among other interesting results, the recent election gave a Senate seat to One Nation member Malcolm Roberts. Roberts is notable for his expressed belief that global warming is a fraud produced by a global conspiracy of bankers seeking to establish a worldwide government through the United Nations.

Unsurprisingly, Roberts has copped a lot of flak for these statements. But his position seems to me to be more credible than that of the average “sceptic”.

I’ll take, Don Aitkin as an example of the kind of sceptic generally seen as more credible than conspiracy theorists like Roberts. Among other indicators of credibility, Aitkin has an AO, he’s a former Vice-Chancellor, and was Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee (predecessor of the Australian Research Council) and a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council. His own academic background was in history and political science. As far as I can tell he has no training or research background in either statistics or natural science of any kind.

Given his background, you’d expect Aitkin to be aware of the years of training required to become an academic expert in any field, and the ease with which amateurs can get things badly wrong. But in his writing on climate change he expresses supreme confidence in his own ability to assess the work of thousands of scientists and pronounce it wanting. As he says

here wasn’t much abstruse science in the global warming issue. A bit of radiative physics, a bit of solar physics, a lot of data of various kinds, large GCMs — global circulation models — and a good deal of extrapolation

All in an afternoon’s work for a retired academic administrator, it seems. No wonder VCs are so highly paid!

Unsurprisingly, we discover that what Aitkin actually disliked was

the message: a set of policies about curbing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels.


So, according to Aitkin, the entire discipline of climate science, backed up by every major scientific organization in the world, is engaged in a transparent fraud, has, in the service a political agenda, published false research, easily seen through by a retired political scientist and his circle of emeritus colleagues. They have succeeded in persuading every national government in the world to sign on to agreements based on this fraud misrepresentation of the facts. And to what end? To change the way we generate electricity, or maybe to shift a few research grants from one field to another. The disproportion between effort and goal is akin to using a nuclear-powered piledriver to crack a peanut.

And the same, more or less, is true of most of the relativel respectable “sceptics”. There simply isn’t enough payoff to explain the gigantic effort that’s gone into constructing the global scientific consensus on climate science.

By contrast, once you accept Malcolm Roberts’ premises, the rest makes sense. Suppose there is a gigantic conspiracy to establish a world government. Then suborning a few thousand scientists and dozens of scientific academies, all the weather bureaus in the world and the entire mass media (except for the Murdoch press) would be child’s play. The only question is when the black helicopters will land.

292 thoughts on “The relative rationality of Malcolm Roberts

  1. The Right can read the reality of world politics, but inevitably fouls up as to conclusions. It knows there is an oligarchy, but can never face up to to the true nature and identity of the threat. The US Tea Party is an example; astro turfed by big business whose people always skew the results of critique to the inverse of the reality.

  2. There’s a famous paper easily found on the www “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” by Svante Arrhenius Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science Series 5, Volume 41, April 1896, pages 237-276.
    Arrhenius made some predictions about how much global warming would arise per extra proportion of CO2. What has happened is roughly in line with what Arrhenius predicted. It strikes me that Senator-elect Roberts or ex-VC Aitkin could achieve immortality by showing how Arrhenius got it wrong 120 years ago.

  3. JQ wouldn’t your piece be better described as the relative rationality of Malcolm Roberts? The issue you are discussing is the relationship between premises and the conclusions drawn by Roberts and Aitken respectively and the relatively rationality thereof.

  4. Roberts is on Q&A next Monday; also Greg Hunt.

    Meanwhile, or just after …

    Uni’s VS Fossil Fuels – short film and academic panel discussion

    START: August 17, 2016 • 6:00 PM
    Heath Room, UQ Union Complex• The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia 4072

    FREE EVENT: Join some of UQ’s world-leading academics and climate change researchers to watch a short film about divestment – the rapidly growing global movement to get universities to stop investing in fossil fuels. Followed by a panel discussion where we’ll get to hear from these leading academics and discuss UQ’s fossil fuel investments.

    We’re screening the 15-minute film “$hift”, created by students from San Francisco to explain the reasoning behind fossil fuel divestment and tell the inspiring stories of students around the world who are fighting against the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, demanding climate justice.

    Our academic discussion panel is of a very high calibre, a rare opportunity not to be missed! We’ll be hosting:

    John Cook – UQ Climate Communication Fellow, from the Global Change Institute

    Professor John Quiggin – ARC Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics, celebrated author

    Associate Professor Kristen Lyons – Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute

    Dr. David King – climate change & public health researcher, executive member of Doctors for the Environment

    Associate Professor William Grey – Honorary Research Associate Professor in Philosophy (environmental philosophy).

  5. The most significant thing to recognise here and how to respond is that Malcolm Roberts is not an unintelligent person. Malcolm was my then mine manager when I first moved to Queensland in 1991. HThe same qualities which led him to that position are still displayed. The “empirical” insistence is actually based on Deming TQM industrial methodology. Good for its purpose but perhaps not applicable to climate science. Can his mind be changed despite his insistence that his own view is the one based on evidence? I doubt it.

  6. Perhaps someone on Q&A can posit the existence of a global coalition of fossil fuel interests led by Jerry Hall’s squeeze who are continually fighting to discredit any science that might reduce the the rate at which they are accumulating wealth. OK, its not as attractive a conspiracy as the illuminati and world government, largely because it is quite believable.

  7. Anyone who would like to find out what I actually say about the notion of catastrophic global warming is welcome to read it at It is a tad or so more sensible than the bizarre interpretation of it given above.

  8. @tony lynch, your suggestion that Don Aitkin is not here is premised on the assumption that there is such a thing as Don Aitkin. Until we can find decisive evidence of his existence (and if anything, seems to me to present evidence against his existence, not for it) then your argument is untenable. Also, he’s probably not as bad as you’re suggesting he is.

  9. @Don Aitkin

    Looked. Its just standard denialist talking points.

    E.g. To paraphrase, “It makes no sense to talk about average global temperature. Now what is the ideal temperature for humans?”

    I’m sorry, but it only sounds clever to the audience that want to hear it.

  10. @Peter T
    A quick look at Don Aitkin’s site suggest to me that the interpretation in the post is, in fact, quite accurate.
    I do agree. Of course I’m Canadian and had a friend living in Fort McMurray Alberta until recently.

    Don Aitkin’s summary seems to have repeated a number of well-used and discredited denier tropes.

  11. It’s a little worrisome that arrogant, complacent ignorance of the type shown by Aitkin can be found in positions of power and influence in government and university settings.

    Are self-exposing cases like his just the tip of a very stupid iceberg?

  12. @jrkrideau

    Yes, standard tropes to be sure. If he was much younger or had the right editor he could have used the proper clickbait-type headline

    I used to believe climate scientists until I looked at the science
    What happened next will shock you

  13. @Magma

    Just think Maurice Newman and Abbott’s business advisory council. Now there’s a guy who probably makes Aitkin look almost reasonable – unless Don also believes in UN black helicopters and ‘One World Order’. Maurice does.

  14. Robert Merlin “Bob” Carter (9 March 1942 – 19 January 2016).

    Science advances one funeral at a time.

  15. Mind you, there are intra-Roberts rationality ratios as well as extra-Roberts comparisons, and his GW material is several orders of magnitude saner than his (now apparently disowned) stab at being a sovereign citizen .

  16. @ChrisB

    A formal written declaration in archaic faux-legal language stating that Malcolm Robert’s perceptions and needs are ipso facto all important and must be met. It’s a florid expression of a narcissistic personality disorder.

  17. @Don Aitkin

    Perhaps you’d like to spell out where you think I have misrepresented you. I’ve relied on direct quotes which, I think, are both in context and representative.

  18. @John Quiggin JQ, what is it about total measured warming of less than 1.0c for the last 2 centuries since the end of the coldest extended period of civilisation [LIA] which coincided with the Industrial Revolution, being less than half the ~1.0c per century average natural climate variability during the last 80 centuries, that you don’t understand?

    Do you seriously believe that when noise exceeds signal to this extent that Don Aitkin could be anything other than scientifically rational in his scepticism of warmist’s CAGW beliefs?

    And Malcolm Roberts ditto?

  19. “So, according to Aitkin, the entire discipline of climate science, backed up by every major scientific organization in the world, is engaged in a transparent fraud, easily seen through by a retired political scientist and his circle of emeritus colleagues. They have succeeded in persuading every national government in the world to sign on to agreements based on this fraud.”

    Quote of the climate change year so far

  20. By contrast, once you accept Malcolm Roberts’ premises, the rest makes sense

    This is not a good argument. It’s like saying that once you accept the premise that Hillary Clinton is a murderer then it is rational to believe everything else Donald Trump says about her. There’s more to being rational than being able to follow premises to their logical conclusion. You can’t be rational if you believe premises that are self-evidently preposterous.

  21. “Anyone who would like to find out what I actually say about the notion of catastrophic global warming is welcome to read it at It is a tad or so more sensible than the bizarre interpretation of it given above.” Don Aitken

    Well I did. The usual emeritus stuff. Basically climate chance skeptics/denialists etc have no serious understanding of statistical modeling (I can’t talk about natural sciences as I have no particular expertise there). If they do have some expertise its in geology or engineering. I ran into many of them while working on climate change economics for five years.

    Attacking the man I know, but god they were old fools.

    (Sorry a bit angry about Don’s appropriation of the name of ‘Aaron Wildavsky’ to support his views. Wildavsky was a truly brilliant scholar and, 20 years on from his 1997 views, would surely have revised them to fit the facts.

  22. John, I offered you the opportunity to present your views on CAGW on my website, but you did not do so. Misrepresentation?

    ‘according to Aitkin, the entire discipline of climate science, backed up by every major scientific organization in the world, is engaged in a transparent fraud, easily seen through by a retired political scientist and his circle of emeritus colleagues.’

    This is complete rubbish. You must be able to do better than this.

  23. I am of the opinion that most serious, credentialed denialists who mount intellectual and scientific arguments, or more precisely pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-scientific arguments, against the AGW thesis, are in fact deliberate and knowing liars. They know they are lying and they know they are twisting, distorting and omitting various facts to tell their lies. I think we are too ready to assume such people are genuine and of good faith in their ostensibly evinced positions. We are too ready to assume they are misguided rather than that they are knowing and intentional liars.

    In the fields of psychology, sociology and criminology there is plenty of evidence that humans – every compos mentis human in some circumstance or other – can be knowing and intentional liars. The usual motive is self interest or self-defence. For the former it is usually a short term, unenlightened, self-interest goal. The clearest motivation for lying about AGW would be personal, pecuniary self-interest. A close second would be lying for power and the third lying for praise, acclaim and recognition from that uninformed but quite numerous section of the public. Those who are not serious and recognised scientists in the field of climate change studies, atmospheric physics etc. can only get widespread acknowledgement, support and acclaim from nobodies if arguing in this field. (They also get, some of them, narrow, deep support from fossil fuel capitalists and their apparatchiks). With respect to the broad support, it is as Nietzsche said;

    “What? You seek something? You wish to multiply yourself tenfold, a hundredfold? You seek followers? Seek nulls!”

    I understand that that quote works better in German as the word for “nulls” (zeroes) plays even more directly on the second meaning of “nobodies”. Thus “You seek followers? Seek nobodies!” Seek empty people who do not think for themselves and need to be told what to think. Knowing denialists strike me very strongly as persons arguing falsely or from an amoral position of no moral convictions at all. Immediate power, influence and prestige are all that matters to such people. Whether these are gained by truth, lies or complete disregard for any distinction between the two is of no importance to such people.

    I’ve been looking at the geological-eras based denialist argument about AGW. This position argues firstly that human activity is too puny to change climate and secondly that it wouldn’t matter if it did because “climate’s changed before”.

    The first level argument (human activity is too puny to change climate) should be clinching on its own. One must consider why denialists feel the need for the backup argument that change wouldn’t matter anyway. This suggests a deep lack of confidence in their own primary argument. The problem for knowing denialists is that their first level argument is scientifically refutable. They know it is refutable hence the resort to the backup argument. This also exposes a fundamentally dishonest argument method as follows. “I will first advance a spurious but credible-seeming argument. It is the easiest way to convince, and quickly win to my side, all those people who can only handle one step arguments. For those who think and investigate a little further (beyond this easily refutable first argument) I will advance a second argument where the logical fallacy is slightly more subtle ie. it is not demonstrably false like the first argument but rather, although being true in and of itself, it is irrelevant to the real scientific and moral points of the issue.”

    So at their second level of argument, they argue that it doesn’t matter if we alter the current (holocence) climate markedly because climate has changed before; the latter statement meaning in all of previous geological history. What isn’t mentioned is that some of these previous marked changes in climate (occurring from various natural causes) have themselves resulted in massive extinctions and long-term set-backs for the complexity and variety of life on earth. Thus it is, in essence, an argument that mankind may be blindly destructive of life in the biosphere because natural forces sometimes are too; that we may further add to natural hazards by our own careless or selfish agency (when other actions are possible) and that this carries no human or ecological moral content.

    The above argument is somewhat akin to me arguing that it wouldn’t matter if I killed someone because sooner or later they would die anyway. That’s not a proposition that any court, jury or any credible moral or ethical authority would accept as a defence or justification.

  24. @John Brookes
    Yeah, and them and their co-conspirators park their super-yachts at an island one of them owns, and then thrash out their control-of-the-world plans while Jerry and friends are sunbathing on the beach. Oh, wait…that did happen; I read it in one of his papers. 🙂

  25. Really so much of what is said by climate skeptics etc is just laughable. So this powerful global conspiracy of climate scientists employ their immense powers to get …………………. $100,000 jobs (if they are lucky) in academia or a research institute. And nobody can debunk them apart from the noble citizen scientist, with no real qualifications but common sense.

  26. And further, to continue the rant, it is so blindingly clear to anyone who looks like the whole skepticism game (at least since about 2007) is backwards logic, derived from ideological dislike of the (sometimes ideological policy prescriptions for climate change abatement.

  27. John Quiggin,

    Looking at the UofQ talk you’re on the panel for on divestment — will you be posting on divestment at all?

    I’d be interested to hear your views.

    I went to a talk last year with Ross Garnaut and he said that he thought it had to be strategic and make sense. He said the divestments at ANU were a bit confusing in what they divested and what they didn’t.

    Last week the University of Melbourne held a forum on divestment, and the student divestment group is hoping that the University will fully divest, but a panelist from Oxford by video-link argued that a university divestment strategy should be based on divestment in tune with keeping climate change to safe levels, and that his research group argued for Oxford to divest with a model of requiring any fossil fuel company investments etc to be with companies that have plans to move entirely away from fossil fuels by, say, 2050, and that these plans and progress to meeting the plans are made transparent by the company.

    This seems like a good way of trying to move the sector forwards, even if it meant continuing to invest in some fossil fuel companies in the mean time.

    I really haven’t been able to make my mind up what the best strategy is.

  28. @Ikonoclast
    “I am of the opinion that most serious, credentialed denialists who mount intellectual and scientific arguments, or more precisely pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-scientific arguments, against the AGW thesis, are in fact deliberate and knowing liars.”

    Well, at least you only claimed it to be a “thesis”.

    But instead of an evidence-free rant, why not refute the details of my above comment?

    If, from scientific, empirical evidence, natural climate variability is twice the current rate of warming, how can you claim with any certainty that the earth has this multi-trillion dollar “problem”?

  29. spangled drongo :
    But instead of an evidence-free rant, why not refute the details of my above comment?

    Because it consists of questions, not statements. Statements can be refuted; questions can’t. I strongly suspect that your use of questions only, without statements, is not happenstance.

  30. @spangled drongo

    1. Apart from “noise” in the signal, most warming or cooling events in any geological period before the industrial revolution can be correlated with natural forcing events.

    2. Those natural forcing events in geological history which ARE understood (not all are understood yet) are NOT noise.

    3. The entire variation range of climate before the industrial revolution is mostly not noise but the result of natural forcing.

    4. It is possible to separate and distinguish anthropogenic (human) forcing from natural forcing and most natural forcing in turn from noise.

    You demonstrate a lack of understanding of the difference between noise and natural forcing. You also seem to lack a proper background understanding of what natural forcing is and what might generate it. Otherwise, you would not make an incomplete one point argument and assume it is a complete and clinching set of deductions.

    Many factors, both natural (and now human after the industrial revolution), can cause changes in Earth’s surface energy balance (leading to climate change), including:

    (a) Variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth
    (b) Changes in the reflectivity of Earth’s atmosphere and surface
    (c) Changes in greenhouse gas levels.

    It is clear that large, linked geological and atmospheric changes over the geological life span of earth have had very large forcing effects on climate. Massive volcanic CO2 and CH4 out-gassing events are one case (supervolcanoes, basaltic shield events). These can lead to cooling first from atmosphere clouding (water vapour and particulates) followed by warming caused by the higher CO2, CH4 etc. levels.

    There are also sedimentary rock effects.

    “…. measurements show fairly convincingly that the long-term cooling trend over the last 50 million years is associated with a gradual decrease in carbon dioxide levels, from 2000-3000 parts per million during the Eocene Optimum to 200 p.p.m. during the Ice Age. The cause of this decrease is not fully understood, but seems to indicate that the total amount of carbon that can influence climate (carbon in the atmosphere, biosphere and ocean) is slowly decreasing, possibly because an increasing amount of carbon is being tied up in sedimentary rocks such as limestone.”

    However, the semi-permanent fixing of carbon in peat, coal, kerogen, oil, natural gas and methane clathrate deposits underground, in swamps, lakes and tundra and in deep ocean beds must also represent a considerable subset of the carbon loss from short to mid term biosphere circulation, geologically speaking . It is almost all these we are now rapidly re-releasing by using fossil fuels.

    Finally, I enjoy the double irony of your nickname. Apart from the obvious Australian slang there is the subtly appropriate, “The spangled drongo is an amazing mimic taking most of its vocabulary from the sounds heard in the vicinity and weaving them into a virtuoso aria.” I think you have been in the vicinity of denialist websites too often and too long.

  31. Spangled Drongo:

    If, from scientific, empirical evidence, natural climate variability is twice the current rate of warming, how can you claim with any certainty that the earth has this multi-trillion dollar “problem”?

    None of that makes any sense. You’re attempting to compare a range of variability with a rate of change…it’s a trivial observation that internal variability is considerable around the long term trend change. Where do we end up in the long term, while interannual variability in GAT retains its observed character? I’ll tell you: net warmer. Net warmer is a challenge for agriculture and infrastructure.
    And the ‘certainty’ of claims about the cost and nature of change is dealt with in a number of scenarios, with careful detailed discussion. The assessment of the copious evidence is that it is a problem, worth addressing. ‘Certainty’? Think of it as risk management. We do that all the time.

    As for Roberts, he’s in deep. He’s extraordinarily crazy.

  32. @J-D
    J-D, if you can’t understand the statements of fact in those questions, you’ve certainly got a cognitive problem.

    But to help you along, let me put it more simply:

    Fact 1: Measured global warming since the end of the LIA [~ 200 years ago] – less than 1.0c. or 0.5c per century.

    Fact 2: Average natural climate variability per century for the last 80 centuries – ~ 1.0c.

    So, for the last 80 centuries climate has changed by ~ twice our current rate, by simply natural means. [Prior to this, climate has naturally changed by 20 times our current rate but let’s keep it simple].

    So how does that make our current climate change man made?

  33. @spangled drongo

    Maybe you should read the OP, rather than illustrating it. To help you along, are you claiming that

    (i) the entire scientific world has fallen for obviously erroneous claims, easily refuted by a pseudonymous blog commenter

    (ii) the entire scientific world is part of a gigantic conspiracy to establish world government, as claimed by Roberts

  34. @Nick
    Looks like you have problems with simple mental arithmetic too, Nick.

    And what is it about you people here that you can’t refute simple facts but have to call someone like Roberts “extraordinarily crazy” when all he is pointing out is the truth; ie, you have no evidence for your claims.

    If you have, produce it. And stop insulting people who have a better grip on the real world.

    But of course, when there is measured natural warming in the past that far exceeds anything that is happening currently and the only science supporting the AGW theory comes from models that are so obviously wrong, you’re only answer is to shoot the messenger.

  35. @spangled drongo

    Fact 2: Average natural climate variability per century for the last 80 centuries – ~ 1.0c.

    That’s not a fact, that’s a claim which you make without evidence. There is no evidence that mean global temperature has averaged that sort of variability in each of the last 80 centuries. Let’s keep it simple by all means, but keeping it credible is the challenge you face.
    A recent paper [Kopp et al 2016] on sea level variation over the last three thousand years finds variance of around +/- 8cm within and over that time, while current net change has been so far around 25cm. That suggests much less centennial variation for those 29 centuries than you assert. Other papers support this understanding

    JQ< let's just stop SD here…further discussion with him is fruitless, definitely in Malcolm Roberts territory
    Thanks for your indulgence.

  36. @spangled drongo
    Do you realise Roberts thought fit to submit a formal complaint of ‘unsatisfactory professional conduct’ about three ocean/climate specialists to the Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland…never mind that none were engineers, none were members of the professional association and none fell under the purview and reach of the board.
    What’s more, Roberts saw fit to publish his complaint on his website, obviously in the view that it gives his ‘arguments’ credibility.

    Give that a moments thought, SD.
    That is my last engagement with you.

  37. @John Quiggin
    John, do you deny that less than 1.0c [some record as little 0.7c] warming since global measurement began is below natural climate variability?

    Does it possibly occur to you that after centuries of the coldest period of civilisation known as the Little Ice Age that the natural inclination of the climate would be to warm somewhat?

    And the end of that LIA also coincided with the beginning of phenomenal development throughout the world known as the Industrial Revolution which would have added considerable recorded warming seeing as most of the thermometers were installed amongst this rapid development.

    This being the case, for the small amount of actual warming we have experienced, it could just as logically be argued that ACO2 produces cooling.

    As Malcolm Roberts rightly says, there is no empirical evidence for AGW.

    But if you have any, please produce it.

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