IPCC report – understanding the evidence

A letter to the Economist about the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encourages us to see climate models not as ‘a prediction machine’ but as ‘living maps, drawn up by scientists with the most recent evidence available…’

It’s the phrase ‘living maps’ I like. Wouldn’t it be great if policy discussions generally could use living maps, mapping out options and actions and consequences, with full context, and a decent attempt at impartiality?

The press would hate it, and so too the politicians. Maybe I would too, to be honest. Democracy as we know it is all about confrontations. But a few occasional living maps are useful, so well done the IPCC.

And, yes, the IPCC is impartial. Errant reporting of the movements of Himalayan glaciers doesn’t vitiate reams of irrefutable evidence. How we respond is a different matter: are consequences manageable, how much does it matter if they’re not, what on balance is best for the world? But we need to accept the evidence before we can have that debate. Increasingly acidified oceans and retreating ice sheets and, yes, glaciers, are there to remind us.

We need those living maps, to work out our options. There are different routes to take and we may get lost. Routes we can argue. But we’re mad to challenge the contours. When the deluge comes we don’t want to find ourselves in a river valley all the while claiming the mountains don’t exist.

Data geeks rule OK

Buzzards mew (see last post) and data geeks buzzz….

The Economist’s Lexington column talks about the surfeit of data and data geeks buzzing around Washington DC. Data it seems is the truth, or truths, because data can be made to say a lot of things, depending on which way you twist it. Unless you’re Nate Silver, who wishes to be judged on his outcomes. That would and should be the real test for data geeks.

CP Scott: ‘facts are sacred, opinion is free.’ But if facts are merely data then – is nothing sacred?

‘Washington’s passion…for data does not signal the start of a new Socratic age, in which political classes jointly search for truth.’ (Lexington) Each of us brings his or her own ‘tribal instinct’ to weighing the facts. So maybe that’s another rider to CP Scott’s dictum. Keep your tribal instincts in check, and when judging facts put your mind in neutral…

Over here we’ve had the Civitas report, arguing there has been no insider advantage from joining the Common Market all those years ago. Our trade with the EU represents no greater percentage than it did in 1973. The government’s response: ‘the EU’s share of UK trade has remained consistent because of the huge growth in other markets in the same period.’ Now I’d need to re-read Richard Lambert’s article in Prospect a few months back, check out the recent CBI report arguing a different case from Civitas, and the Civitas report itself. Then form my own view. My tribal instinct backs the CBI. Civitas are a right-of-centre think tank, so we’d expect their instinct to be more critical of the EU. Surprise surprise, that’s just what they are.

Damned hard being neutral, and a whole lot less fun.

Spring is very much sprung

Some wonderful descriptions of spring.

Check out the earthbound Roger Deakin in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm: (7th May)

‘Everywhere this morning in the May sunshine I notice the sudden, magical growth of trees. The mulberry has just come into leaf overnight…yesterday there was no sign of anything more than the tiniest buds. The ash tree is sending out shoots. The laid hedge of the wood is bursting into fresh leaf. The coppiced hazels…’

Or the more heavenbound Thomas Merton: (12th March), in Kentucky:

‘The sun was warm. I stood by the wall and watched the lambs, I had not known of their arrival. Little black-eyed things, jumping like toys on the green grass. I thought: ‘Feed my lambs.’ There is certainly something very touching about lambs, until they find their way into holy pictures and become unpleasant.’

I would agree with him there.

Some of our own recent spring days have been days simply to live in and not to describe. Hopkins nobly attempts to describe the indescribable…

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—/ When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;/ Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush/  Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring/  The ear…

And finally, illustrating how even the high heavens can be brought down to earth,  compare Hopkin’s wonderfully elevated Windhover

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air,…

with the this-time-earthbound Thomas Merton’s dental chair:

‘The dentist came from Cincinnati and I spent three-quarters of an hour in the chair watching the buzzards circling in the grey sky over the old sheep barn while he drilled a wisdom tooth.’

Merton would seem to have had a very superior out-of-doors dentist.

Banning books – a prison library story

For anyone with any involvement is book publishing, and anyone with a sense of the redemptive power of books, the government’s recently introduced changes to the IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges) scheme for prisoners cause alarm bells to ring.

Anyone who tampers with the availability of books risks evoking thoughts of Savonarola in Florence in 1505, or Fahrenheit 451. But you don’t need to burn books. You just place them off-limits.

The changes claim to be ‘about making (prisoners) work towards their rehabilitation. Poor behaviour and refusal to engage in the prison regime will result in a loss of privileges.’ One key change:

‘A ban on all sentenced prisoners receiving parcels including books and other basic items, except for a one-off parcel at the start of their sentence and in exceptional circumstances.’ Television access is severely restricted. (The issue is not of course restriction itself – it’s how tight that restriction is. There are good reasons for restricting TV access.)

To progress IEP status, prisoners must ‘demonstrate a commitment towards their rehabilitation’ by engaging in purposeful activity, behaving well and helping other prisoners’. It seems that ‘knitting wool, embroidery silks as well as books are banned and indeed the parcel is returned to the sender who has to pay’. (Again, wool implies needles, and you can see why needles are restricted – if not outright banned.)

The effect would seem to be to make purposeful activity harder. The changes appear to run directly counter to both rehabilitation, by helping prisoners stay connected to the outside world, and better re-connect when they get out, and to their personal welfare. You build confidence and self-esteem, you don’t undermine it by denying opportunities for self-improvement.

Reading the Prison Reform Trust’s document ‘Prison Without Purpose’ is disturbing. Compounding matters is the failure of many prisons to comply with the statutory duty of prisons to have a library, with all prisoners allowed access for a minimum of thirty minutes every two weeks. Book stock, points out the Society of Authors, ‘in many prisons is poor, often damaged or out-of-date and that inter-library loan requests are often slow or not actioned at all.’

Note: existing regulations allow access for a minimum of thirty minutes every two weeks. That is bad in itself.

Humanity and compassion are at the heart of what I write about in this blog. On the evidence I’m aware of (from the PRT’s report, the book publishing trade press and the wider press) the current changes runs counter to both.

The dry bones of a thousand empires

Also from the Mark Twain quote:

(Damascus) has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

When we talk of being part of a Christian tradition, we do need to widen that to encompass Judaic, Greek, Roman, Arab. Talk of a thousand empires may be a little exaggerated … but our spiritual and cultural traditions have been nurtured and fashioned over many millennia, and they’ve come down to us interpreted and recreated through (for the UK) a fifteen-hundred-year Christian history. When we try and conjure value systems without that spiritual content we are doing simply that – conjuring. Belief is one thing, faith is another, they can be disavowed, but to disavow our Christian tradition, to imagine that our values have simply an evolutionary explanation, is to deny history. I italicise simply. Scientific and cultural evolution work together. The former doesn’t have the conceptual framework remotely to encompass the latter, any more than the latter can explain the former (not that anti-evolution and intelligent design protagonists haven’t tried).

To get back to Damascus – ‘will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies’. Thing long, think in terms of centuries, even millennia. Every generation thinks it has solutions, and every generation comes up short. Put the rights of man and democracy in that context: if there is a promised land it will not come out a eureka democratic moment, it will evolve over historic time.

For Syria, as for all of us.



Syria’s turmoil continues, with the numbers of refugees and violence and destruction at levels which would have seemed inconceivable three years ago. It is a reminder that the inconceivable can happen. Syria is such an extraordinary country, a crossroad and an intermingling of cultures, now as three thousand years ago. Diana Darke in her insider’s view of Syria and Damascus in particular (My House in Damascus) quotes Mark Twain (An Innocent Abroad):

She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality… Damascus has seen all that ever occurred on earth and still she lives.

She is being challenged now as never before, such is the ability of modern armament to flatten the old with same equanimity as it flattens the new. It will take an extraordinary mix of tolerance and goodwill to restore old harmonies and the old fabric. We may glibly think that democracy, western-style, is the answer. But leadership and vision must come first.

Democracy as in Algeria and Egypt and Libya can tear a country apart.

Winnie the Pooh – a black and white or glorious Technicolor bear?

The Penguin chief executive officer, questioned (July 2013) during an anti-trust civil trial resulting from a lawsuit brought in 2012 by the US Justice Department, conceded the Winnie-the-Pooh book looks ‘extremely beautiful’ in colour on Apple products and not as good in black-and-white on other devices. [Can we assume a book is ‘another device’?] ….

Just what would AA Milne or indeed EH Shepard’s Pooh bear have thought? Pooh beautiful in colour? The Shepard illustrations were coloured up in a Winnie the Pooh edition back in the 70s or 80s, and lost something. But the Disney Pooh exploded on to the screen as a different creature altogether, taken out of the Ashdown Forest and plonked down in Disneyland.

Bears like honey, not apples.