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Duncan Steel: Climate Change And Natural Variations In The Solar Influx

Dr Duncan Steel

In 1583 John Dee, magus (essentially scientific adviser, in today’s terminology) to the Queen of England, presented a report to Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council. It contained in a coded form Dee’s alternative to the Gregorian Calendar, which the Roman Catholic Church had introduced the previous year, and which (due to its leap year rules) causes ongoing problems in comparing temperature records, as I mentioned in my first piece here in the GWPF Observatory.

The catchy title of Dee’s report read as follows, with its original spelling maintained:

A playne Discourse and humble Advise for our Gratious Queen Elizabeth, her most Excellent Majestie to peruse and consider, as concerning the needful Reformation of the Vulgar Kalendar for the civile yeres and daies accompting, or verifyeng, according to the tyme truely spent.

He started it with a verse:

I shew the thing and reason why;
At large, in breif, in middle wise,
I humbly give a playne advise;
For want of tyme, and tyme untrew
Yf I have myst, commaund anew
Your honour may. So shall you see
That love of truth doth govern me.

Whilst science was not established as a profession four centuries and more ago, it seems to me that Dee’s little rhyme should be memorised by all modern-day scientists, because it encapsulates the essence of what is needed in any scientific report or paper submitted for publication, and therefore should inform how they proceed.

In the ongoing debates (to use a generous description) over climate change, global warming, call it what you will, much emphasis has been placed on ‘peer review’. In my view this emphasis is misplaced. Myself, I have had published over 130 peer-reviewed research papers, and I have been the peer-reviewer for a larger number, as one might expect. In inspecting a paper submitted for consideration of publication by any journal my three main aims are to identify any errors (if I can) in order to save others from being misled, to save the authors and the editor/journal from any embarrassment, and to make constructive (although sometimes necessarily harsh) criticisms regarding how I think the paper might be improved. What I do not and cannot do is to guarantee that the scientific content of the paper is entirely valid and correct.

Science is not democratic…

All that ‘peer review’ should mean is that a few people with appropriate background knowledge (I hesitate to term it ‘expertise’) have perused the paper as submitted and in doing so they have not uncovered any demonstrable mistakes or fallacies in the analysis and deductions drawn. Once the paper is published it will receive further review from people at large, assuming anyone reads it: I once came across the disheartening information (although I’d like to think it incorrect) that the average number of times a complete, published paper is read in its entirety, neglecting the authors, editorial staff and reviewers, is about one-half; however I cannot recall whether that figure represents a mean or median readership. Given that some papers are read thousands of times, this would imply that the majority of published papers are never read at all.

No matter. The point is that many, many papers that have appeared in the world’s premier scientific journals have been discovered to be wrong, and many others are also wrong but await identification as such.

What the reader will gather from the above, I hope, is that if an author/scientist is right, then he/she is right; and if wrong, then the contrary. It makes no difference where a disproof is published, nor by whom, and it makes no difference whether it was peer-reviewed. There is a story – I know not whether it is apocryphal – that in 1931, some years after Albert Einstein had published his General Theory of Relativity, a pamphlet appeared entitled ‘100 Authors Against Einstein’, to which he is said to have retorted “If I were wrong, then one would be enough.” Scientific fact is not democratic. We cannot vote to repeal the law of conservation of momentum.

On the other hand, many clever and correct scientific deductions have appeared only on the back of a proverbial envelope, and that’s a pity. There is a popular saying along the lines of “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”, the underlying notion being that if you have a good idea – especially one that might be commercially profitable – then there will be no shortage of people showing interest. The saying, however, is misleading in itself: for that to happen, first you need to announce your new mousetrap invention to the world, and second you need to tell them your address, else they will not know where your door might be.

In this short series of articles, then, ‘I humbly give a playne advise’ which I hope others will find useful. A reader wrote asking whether I would be publishing my findings in a ‘journal’, and my response is to ask rhetorically: For what? To what end? Apart from anything else, “For want of tyme, and tyme untrew” provides a reason for me not to do so.

My plots and discussion are published here, and anyone with the necessary capability can duplicate them (I would hope) rather easily. I inserted “I would hope” there in that it is feasible that I have erred, but I have a high level of confidence that I have not done so.

…But you do have a veto

I have deliberately not spelled out the algorithms, because a real test of the veracity of the results as presented will come from others starting afresh. But note that the calculations really are quite straightforward, involve only a few dozen lines of code, and are based on fundamental matters: Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, and high-school or beginning undergraduate-level geometry, trigonometry, and orbital mechanics. The most difficult part is solving what is known as ‘Kepler’s equation’ in the computer code, which is usually done using iterative techniques, but because the eccentricity of the Earth’s heliocentric orbit is small one can use a quickly-converging Taylor series to derive the eccentric anomaly from the mean anomaly, as is shown on the relevant Wikipedia page. (Note I wrote “one can use” there; but I did not; I wrote an iterative procedure but then substituted a more efficient one written by a mathematical whizz who I will refer to as Doctor A, although his real name is David Asher.)

In my preceding articles I have mentioned the values applied for the Earth’s orbit (in particular the eccentricity and longitude of perihelion) and tilt of our spin axis (the obliquity of the ecliptic) for the years 1246, 1750 and 2000. As a word of warning, the appropriate parameters are those accounting for secular perturbations, and not the osculating values (e.g. as one gets from the NASA-JPL Horizons webpages). A convenient source for those needed parameters is the NASA-GISS webpage which makes use of the algorithms developed by the estimable André Berger of the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Alternatively, Berger has an ftp site from which you can download his source code and executable files for various platforms. Excellent scientific practice! I might mention in passing that from comments nested in his line code I noted that Berger chose to use a year length equal to a sidereal year rather than the Gaussian year which I use, but the difference is minimal.

The above process and programming will, one might anticipate, be beyond the abilities of many readers, and that is a shame; but as I stated earlier, science is not democratic, and no-one has a vote by dint of their mere existence. “Things are as they are, and not as we might hope or believe” as some famous scientist once said, although they were not so famous that I can recall their name just now.

On the other hand, everyone has the right, even responsibility, to impose a veto. That is, anyone is allowed to show that I am wrong and have made one or more mistakes in my assumptions, calculations, or analysis. As Einstein said, “one would be enough.”

Various correspondents have asked me to clarify a few matters, and that is fair enough: as Dee wrote, “Yf I have myst, commaund anew.” The intended meaning of ‘myst’ there is in terms of making an error, being mistaken; but we might also select the homophone ‘missed’ as an alternative meaning for present purposes. People have asked me to clarify various matters with alternative graphs, and so in this article, as presaged in the previous two pieces, I will present some missing (or myst) information.

Total solar power delivered to Earth

In my preceding article I presented a plot of how the solid angle that the Earth subtended at the Sun in 1246 and 2000 varied throughout those years, and noted that this solid angle as a fraction of a whole sphere could be multiplied by the solar luminosity (total power output of the Sun) to render the total power being delivered to Earth by the solar radiation flux at any instant in time during those years.

Someone asked me whether I could produce a plot showing this directly, and so I have done this below, although I arrived at the output data via a different (but equivalent) path: I summed up the products of the solar flux (watts per square metre) and the area (square metres) within each one-degree latitude band on Earth at each of one-thousand equally-spaced times during the year, and at each of those instants summed up the total power delivery to the Earth as a whole (i.e. from latitude 90°S to 90°N). In doing this I accommodated both the variations in Earth’s orbit, as discussed in my first article, and also the non-spherical shape of the planet, as discussed in my second article.


This, then, shows how the total power available from sunlight to heat the Earth varied across a (Gaussian) year in 1246 and in 2000. The curves are almost, but not quite, sinusoidal: our planet’s speed varies during a year, being highest at perihelion (at the peaks of those curves) and lowest at aphelion (at each curve’s minimum), and this causes a deviation from a true sine wave that is only tiny because the eccentricity is small.

It is apparent that the two curves have slightly different amplitudes: this is because the eccentricity and the obliquity both changed slightly between 1246 and 2000.

The major distinction between the curves is the phase shift, and this is due to the longitude of perihelion changing substantially over that 754 years: from precisely 270 degrees in 1246 to a value of 282.895 degrees in 2000. It is that “precisely 270 degrees in 1246” that led to my choice of that epoch as a reference: it is the last time that perihelion was aligned with any of the solstices and equinoxes (the northern winter solstice in this case), with seasonal consequences that I described in my preceding/second article.

In that article I wrote that “…the overall energy delivery [i.e. in joules] will depend on the exposure time to any particular sunlight power, and this I will deal with in a future article…” In fact I have given the answer to this previously, but the way to derive the value can be seen from the above plot. I integrate the area under each curve and get a value of 5.497 × 10^24 joules; in fact for 1246 the value was 5.497161, and for 2000 it was 5.497121, and so if I rounded to the fourth decimal place then the answers would be seen to differ slightly. That is, the total sunlight power arriving at the Earth, predicated on an assumption that the Sun’s intrinsic output has not changed (i.e. that the ‘Solar Constant’ is indeed constant), has actually decreased very slightly over the past several centuries due to our changing orbit and axis tilt combined with the shape of the planet. It may well be that the solar radiation output has actually increased over recent centuries, the IPCC assessment of which I have mentioned in the previous two articles, but that is a different matter from what I am discussing herein.

A quick alternative to the numerical integration of those curves that I undertook is to take a look, assess that the average value (on the y-axis) is about 1.74, multiply that by the number of seconds in a year, and you’ll get the integrated energy as shown.

Latitudinal variation

Correspondents have asked me why I presented a plot in my first article that showed the change in solar flux at different latitudes between 1750 and 2000, whereas in the second article I used an earlier year (i.e. 1246).

The answer is that in that first article the year 1750 was used because it is the conventional epoch used for the situation prior to the Industrial Revolution (i.e. before our civilisations commenced greatly enhanced CO2 emissions), and I wanted to show how changes in Earth’s orbit over just the 250 years through to 2000 had led to the distribution of the incoming solar flux altering by an apparently-significant amount. In my follow-up (second) article I wanted to highlight the effect of the Earth not being spherical, and for that it made sense to employ 1246 because with perihelion occurring at the winter (or summer) solstice the cross-sectional area that Earth presents to the Sun is maximised at the time that Sun and Earth are closest, and so the planet subtends its maximum solid angle at the Sun: see the second plot in that article. (In all this I am considering only the past and present millennium, and so neglecting consideration of large changes in eccentricity which cause the perihelion distance to be smaller in other eras – in antiquity, and the more-distant future – and so cause Earth’s solid angle to be bigger still.)

No-one has queried why I used 2000 rather than the current 2012, the answer obviously being the convenient round number. In that connection I note that it’s a pity that Dionysius Exiguus, when he was pondering in the early sixth century the dating scheme we have inherited, made a mistake of four years in the regnal years of Augustus Caesar: Dionysius confused the start of the reign of Augustus (actually 31 BC) with the year when he changed his name from Octavian (27 BC). It is due to this that we label the year of Jesus’s birth as 5 BC, instead of the correct 1 BC (with the era count then beginning with the Feast of the Circumcision on 1st January of AD 1). If Dionysius had got it right then the year we term 1246 would have been the rounder 1250, and currently we would be in 2016 already. Unfortunately they did not have peer review in the days of Dionysius.

Getting back to the first paragraph in this section, what some people would like to see is how the incoming solar flux (at the top of the atmosphere) at different latitudes has changed from 1246 through to the present, or at least 2000. As I stated at the end of my preceding piece, “This latitudinal variation, and how it varies in time as Earth’s orbital parameters and obliquity gradually shift, will be dealt with in a future article.” So, then, please do consider the graph below.


Looking at this plot in exclusion, one might initially ask: shouldn’t the negative sides balance the positive sides? The basis for such a question would be the fact that I have already pointed out that the total solar energy delivery to Earth over a year only varies in the fourth decimal place, and so is essentially constant (i.e. the 5.497 × 10^24 joules noted in the previous graph). For example, consider the lime-green line, representing 80°N. It is clear that the area under the curve when it is above the x-axis (days 53 through 155) is less than the area between the curve and the x-axis when it is negative (days 155 through 293). Should these not be equal? The answer is no: I am only showing the flux at 80°N (actually, that within the latitude band one-degree wide, between 79.5 and 80.5 degrees). We are looking only at samples spaced by twenty degrees in latitude, and an overall balance is derived only if all latitudes/all areas are included.

What the lime-green line does tell us, however, is that although there is greater solar influx at 80°N from near the end of February through to mid-June in the present than there was in 1246, so that we might anticipate that the spring thaw in the high Arctic may come earlier, actually over the whole year there is less insolation due to the decrement from mid-June through to about 20th October. From then through to about 22nd February there is no insolation at all at 80°N.

I cannot tell you the overall climatic effect of that change in the intra-annual distribution of insolation, because that depends on how the energy is stored, distributed and so on. That is the job of scientists with expertise different from my own. All I can tell you is that one should expect this to cause some form of climatic change, and not just the earlier spring thaw that I postulated above. Re-distributing the energy delivery must cause change, even if the overall energy received remains the same: consider, for example, the effect of a magnifying glass changing the distribution of the sunlight striking a piece of paper placed below it.

Peculiarities of the plot

There are various specific points or peculiarities in the preceding plot that deserve explanation, if only to set people’s puzzled minds at rest.

First, the lime-green line for 80°N suddenly stops showing zero during day-of-year 55. This is because for the Earth’s orbital parameters and spin axis tilt in year 2000 my one-degree-wide latitude band centred on 80°N first receives some sunlight on that day, whereas back in 1246 darkness still ruled for a short while yet. As with any such digitisation, one should anticipate the output to display abrupt changes that might not be physical. The little dip in the light-blue line for 80°S at day 55 occurs for a similar reason.

One should expect some symmetry in these two lines because they are at the same latitude, one north and the other south. Thus the 80°S curve becomes zero during day 107 and remains so through day 239 because in both 1246 and 2000 that latitude was in perpetual darkness throughout the austral winter; but kinks in the 80°N line are also seen at each of those days because it is the time of year when that northern latitude entered and then left the period of 24-hour sunlight.

With the above in mind the reader should be able to identify the basic causes of the kinks seen in the various lines in the graph in my first article, those occurring at essentially the same days-of-year. What is not so obvious is why the overall behaviour seen there (the plot for year 2000 minus year 1750) is not simply repeated in the present graph (the plot above, for year 2000 minus year 1246) except with scaling up by a factor of very close to three (i.e. one gap is 250 years, the other is 754 years). For example, in the 2000−1750 plot the line for 80°N has a maximum near +3 watts per square metre and a minimum near −4; in the 2000−1246 plot the corresponding lime-green curve has a maximum near +4 and a minimum near −7, much less than a factor of three greater. The reasons for this are intelligible, and the final plot presented in this article (yet to come) will assist the reader who wants to ponder what is going on. All I am trying to point out here is that the comparative behaviour of the plots is not immediately intuitive and needs some thought, both in terms of their root causes, and also in their implications from a climatic perspective.

To take that recognition a step further, the reader might compare the results in the plots under consideration for the southernmost latitudes. At 80°S the light-blue line in the 2000−1750 plot (as in my first article) was significantly negative from day 320 through day 107 (i.e. across the austral summer and more), zero from day 107 through 239 (as expected: the long, dark winter), and then positive from day 239 through day 320. In the 2000−1246 plot presented here, however, the behaviour is rather different: a large negative deviation between day 282 and day 22, a small positive trend from then until day 67, small negative values from then until day 107, zero through the austral winter, then a substantial positive deviation between day 239 and day 282. The emerald-green line for 60°S shows similar sign-changes when these two plots are compared; the yellow line for 40°S echoes these.

Further discussion of this would be nugatory here, and reduce my readership perhaps even below the canonical half-a-person. But the moral is clear: (a) There are substantial changes in solar influx at different latitudes across century timescales; (b) The trends of those changes are not intuitive, but are actually rather complicated; (c) These are of a magnitude that seem to imply that they cannot be neglected in climate change modelling; and (d) We cannot understand climate change on any timescale without including the effects of Earth’s changing orbit and axis tilt.

Fractional changes in incident solar flux

Another valid point that has been brought to my attention is this: it’s all very well plotting absolute changes in incoming solar flux from 1246 to 2000, but how do these few watts per square metre compare with the actual fluxes? That is, how big is the fractional or percentage change?

To answer those questions I took the data that contributed to the preceding graph − that is, the changes in incident solar flux between 1246 and 2000 for each latitude − and divided them by the calculated flux in the earlier year for each day-of-year. The results are shown in the plot that follows.


Let us first deal with the peculiarities in this graph having a similar origin to those which were described earlier in connection with the previous plot.

The curves for both 80°N and 80°S have peaks that go off the scale I chose in both the positive sense (i.e. off the top of the graph) and also the negative sense (off the bottom of the graph). For example the lime-green line for 80°N shoots upwards at day-of-year 55: this is because the computations indicate a small flux is received at that latitude in 2000, whereas in 1246 it was zero on that day (mainly because the obliquity was slightly larger back then). The corresponding southern hemisphere situation occurs on day 239, when the light-blue line for 80°S suddenly shoots high off the graph. The negative deviations (lines going off the bottom of the graph) occur because of essentially the same effect, but in this case they are linked to small solar fluxes in 1246 at day 107 for 80°S and day 293 for 80°N, but zero at each of those two latitudes in the year 2000 on those days.

In a similar way slight kinks are apparent in the 80°N line at day 107, and the 80°S line at day 55; these were also evidenced in the preceding graph and discussed above.

Apart from the off-the-scale maxima and minima for 80°N and 80°S, which are due to the digital techniques used and the divisions by near-zero that result, the next highest fractional change in solar influx is that demonstrated by the emerald-green line for 60°S: at day 193 this peaks at just above 3.5 percent. Whilst that curve otherwise remains close to the x-axis (i.e. less than one percent change, both positive and negative, during the year) the orange curve for 60°N has a positive peak at above 2.1 percent on day 354, a subsidiary broad positive peak above 1.1 percent spread around day 90, and a broad negative peak at almost −1.5 percent centred on day 254.

Apart from the far-south latitudes, all the curves demonstrate an increase in solar influx in the first half of the year, and a decrease in the second half. This is consistent with what would be anticipated in terms of the precession of the longitude of perihelion being the dominant effect (rather than the small changes in the orbital eccentricity and obliquity). Even at 40°S (yellow line), which has a positive peak at day 195, the first half of the year shows an enhancement in incoming solar flux of about 0.5 percent during the first half of the year when 2000 is compared with 1246.

To complete my discussion of this final graph I should mention two further peculiarities that are quite obvious: the knots at days 153 and 298. Most of the coloured curves plotted here pass through those knots, or at least very close to them. The first has a value for fractional change in solar flux of +0.37 percent, the second −0.70 percent. What causes these? The answer is that knots are formed by all the latitudes that are exposed to sunlight at the days in question, and they each receive virtually the same sunlight flux in 1246 and 2000 if one considers only the eccentricity and obliquity: the slight changes in those parameters result in only tiny changes (less than the width of the curves as plotted). However the changed longitude of perihelion has a greater effect, and in 2000 day 153 is reached only 150 days post-perihelion compared to about 162 days post-perihelion in 1246. In consequence, in 2000 the Earth is closer to the Sun and so the overall flux to the Earth is higher on that day (i.e. the knot at day 153 is in positive territory, above the x-axis). Conversely, at day 298 it is still about 70 days until perihelion around year 2000, whereas in 1246 day 298 was only about 57 days pre-perihelion, and so the sunlight flux is lower at that day in 2000 (i.e. the knot at day 298 is in negative territory, below the x-axis).

A personal statement

At different times many people have asked me whether I ‘believe’ in climate change. My pedantic answer – all scientists should be pedants! – is that yes, of course the climate is changing: why should we ever expect it to remain the same? The plots above show one reason why the climate, wherever you live, should not be expected to remain constant for year after year, decade after decade.

The thing that people are really wanting to know from me, however, is whether I think that there is climate change occurring which is due to human activities at the present, and perhaps over the past few hundred years. Again my answer must be ‘yes’. It is obvious that any increase in the so-called greenhouse gases must cause the average temperature to be elevated over the temperature that would otherwise occur: the enhanced mixing ratios of those greenhouse gases plug, in part, some of the spectral holes in the atmosphere’s infra-red opacity, and so the temperature goes up to compensate.

A different matter is whether all or most of the apparent mean temperature increase over the past 250 years is due to the boosted levels of greenhouse gases. On that question I am agnostic. All I have seen so far is correlation – the greenhouse gas levels have gone up, and the temperature has gone up – and it is a well-known aphorism in science that correlation does not prove causation.

So, as I wrote, I am agnostic on that question. I regard that as the correct approach for a real scientist. As a parallel I might mention that in matters of religion I am also an agnostic: I have no religious beliefs, and am bemused by the beliefs of others, but I must leave my mind open to the possibility that they might be right. Certainly I have not become aware of anything within the realm of science that would support their beliefs, and to me Slartibartfast and the white mice have as good a case, but I am ready to be proven wrong in that regard. In this regard it was good to see that Richard Dawkins, so often described by others as being an atheist, stated in a recent interview that he is an agnostic on religion. That, as I noted, is a proper scientific stance.

Having deviated a little away from climate change let me take my personal statement a little further. Although it does not matter much, because none of us get to vote on reality, I would be better convinced by the case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) if the scientists closely involved were to do their job properly.

Again, I discussed earlier the concept of peer review, and I noted that even after a paper or report is published it is still up for review: by the readership. When I look at the IPCC reports, and various papers in which the authors purport to present information and results supporting the AGW hypothesis, I find that in general in the few parts of their argument that I know something about – and in particular the dependence of incoming solar flux on our changing orbit and spin axis tilt – the authors concerned are deficient in their treatment of the problem they have set about solving. Call my cynical – again, a useful characteristic for a scientist – but if I find something wrong in a paper, especially something that is fairly simple, then I discount the whole lot.

So, for me, AGW is yet to be demonstrated to be significant. I do not doubt that it is occurring, but much of science is about determining what is significant, and what is not. If I drive through a cloud of locusts then the accumulated force imposed by smacking against them does not slow the car by a significant amount, although it is a calculable amount. If I hit enough then I might need to stop to clean the windscreen, and that would reduce my average speed, and so then they might be significant. Hitting a kangaroo might be significant for other reasons.

The counter-argument to my position is that even if AGW is yet to be demonstrated to be significant, perhaps along the lines of the most alarmist claims, then the precautionary principle might be interpreted as meaning that we should take substantial steps now to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. I do not agree. I am on the record as regarding AGW as being, on balance of benefits against detriments, a good thing (e.g., if for no other reason than the evidence of history that the downfall of civilisations tend to be linked to rapid climatic downturns (which can have a variety of causes, some yet to be understood) whereas gradual upturns in temperature are things to which humans can accommodate and adapt. Slow changes good, fast changes bad, where the timescale for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may appropriately be chosen to be a generation or two.

A new religion?

The penultimate thing I would say here is that anyone looking for a PhD thesis topic in the social sciences – whether psychology, anthropology or whatever – could do worse than seize on the past and likely future twenty years as an example of a new widespread belief system: AGW. Actually, you might start with Carl Sagan’s 1960 PhD thesis at the University of Chicago, although back in the nineteenth century the greenhouse effect and its variations were understood to some extent, for example by Charles Babbage.

My point is that a huge number of people believe in AGW, and sing its importance to all who will listen whilst trying to force it on others, but only a tiny minority of them have the intellectual capability to comprehend its physical basis. How many understand how water, carbon dioxide and methane absorb infra-red photons, and why those molecules only do so at certain specific wavelengths? How many understand the concept of black body radiation? How many understand that the Planck distribution (which Wikipedia files under ‘Planck’s law’) is indeed a distribution rather than a function? (If you don’t understand that then you might imagine that you can simply change from wavelength to frequency in Wien’s displacement law using the speed of light, with the end effect that you can no longer believe that the Sun is yellow.) And so on.

What happens in such a situation is that an elite few can lay claim to holding sole knowledge of the truth, and use that to control the masses to their own ends. Others (such as politicians and the media) see the advantages of jumping aboard. Like many other established religions, AGW gives the controllers and advocates the opportunity to make others feel guilty about their preferred lifestyles. Before long peer pressure drags a majority into conformity, and deliberately pejorative labels are applied to those who do not agree, so it’s easier to go along with the crowd. It’s no longer acceptable to disagree in any way with what is written in the good book, or reports, or environmental columns in the newspapers, even if you have contrary science-based arguments to present. The believers perhaps would burn such heretics at the stake if it were not for the amount of carbon dioxide that would be released.

I’ve known high school science teachers who actually understood next to nothing regarding the science behind the AGW hypothesis, but present it to their impressionable students as established fact, producing a new generation of converts. And madmen try to change the motto of the Royal Society of London.

This is, I am very much afraid, the end of science as we have known it.

A happy ending?

Actually, I am quite upbeat and hopeful for the future. I would anticipate that the sociology PhD theses I outlined above will eventually appear as retrospectives, in wonderment at mass gullibility.

However, I might be incorrect. It’s great being a scientist: you get to say “Sorry, I was wrong” lots of times. It’s almost like a religion where you get to prostrate yourself before the alter and wail “Oh Lord, I am not worthy of you” once a week, or more if you are particularly naughty…

Actually science is good fun, and value-free if done properly: it is directed towards uncovering the truth of nature, and not confirming our biases and personal preferences. My happy ending is the following few lines, written by the son of Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus in 1781 who coined the word ‘asteroid’ at about the same time (1801) as he became the first to suggest that solar variability might affect Earth’s climate; whereas Herschel junior coined the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in photography. I should tell you that ‘natural philosophy’ is what most of us (barring a few Scottish universities) nowadays call ‘physics.’ Anyway, this is what John Herschel wrote:

We must never forget that it is principles, not phenomena — laws, not insulated independent facts — which are the object of inquiry to the natural philosopher… Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders: every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order.
–Sir John Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830).

Dr Duncan Steel lives in Canberra, Australia. He occasionally checks his email on