Matt Ridley only digs his hole deeper as he attempts to justify his distortions.
By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 19th June 2010
It’s a hackneyed image, I admit, but I’m beginning to feel like the boy who noticed that the monarch was suffering from a serious wardrobe malfunction. In this case, however, the story’s not working out like the original: it seldom does. Exposed, the emperor continues to strut about naked while everyone keeps oohing and aahing over his fine vestments. He confidently asserts that the boy is wrong and he is in fact fully clothed. Desperate to believe that this is true, the crowd agrees. The more you point out the obvious truth, the more defensive and aggressive he becomes.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column for the Guardian exploring the contrast between Matt Ridley’s assertions in his new book The Rational Optimist and his own experience(1). In the book Ridley attacks the “parasitic bureaucracy” which stifles free enterprise and excoriates governments for, among other sins, bailing out big corporations. If only the market is left to its own devices, he insists, and not stymied by regulations, the outcome will be wonderful for everybody.
What Ridley glosses over is that before he wrote this book he had an opportunity to put his theories into practice. As chairman of Northern Rock, he was responsible, according to parliament’s Treasury select committee, for a “high-risk, reckless business strategy”. Northern Rock was able to pursue this strategy as a result of a “substantial failure of regulation” by the state(2). The wonderful outcome of this experiment was the first run on a British bank since 1878, and a £27bn government bail-out.
But it’s not just Ridley who doesn’t mention the inconvenient disjunction between theory and practice: hardly anyone does. His book has now been reviewed dozens of times, and almost all the reviewers have either been unaware of his demonstration of what happens when his philosophy is applied or too polite to mention it. The reason, as far as I can see, is that Ridley is telling people – especially rich, powerful people – what they want to hear.
He tells them that they needn’t worry about social or environmental issues, because these will sort themselves out if the market is liberated from government control. He tells them that they are right to assert that government should get off their backs and stop interfering with its pettifogging rules and regulations: they should be left alone to make as much money as they like, however they like. He tells them that poorly-regulated greed of the kind that he oversaw at Northern Rock is in fact a great moral quest, which makes the world a better place. I expect the executives of BP have each ordered several copies.
Just imagine what the response would have been if someone who tells the rich and powerful what they don’t want to hear had caused the first run on a British bank in 130 years and had to go crawling to the people he had spent years attacking for a £27bn bailout. Imagine that this person, having learnt nothing from the experience, then published a book insisting that the strategy he applied with such catastrophic consequences should be rolled out universally.
Crucifixion wouldn’t have been good enough for him. Reviewers and leader writers would pile in, heaping execration on his head. But because Ridley preaches the business gospel, he’s being celebrated throughout the rightwing press, as well as in parts of the liberal media (sometimes I wonder whether we’re too liberal for our own good).
When someone explains an inconvenient truth about politics that the business elite reviles, it is immediately taken up and echoed in hundreds of blogs and articles. When, as I have found many times before, you explain an inconvenient truth about neoliberal or anti-environmental ideas, it is met with silence. The media simply looks the other way. There is a massive rightwing echo chamber. Nothing comparable exists on the left.
I also pointed out that Ridley had made a series of shocking errors and distortions in his book. I showed how he had misrepresented economic history, made claims that bore no relation to the references he gave, and reeled off facts about the environment which were just plain wrong. Again, none of this has been picked up by Ridley’s reviewers.
Ridley himself has claimed that his shocking mistakes aren’t mistakes at all, then proceeds to compound them with a series of spurious justifications(3). Here are a few examples:
1. I pointed out that his claim that “Enron funded climate alarmism” is not supported by the source he gives(4). Now Ridley cites another URL to prove that even though he didn’t know it at the time he was right all along, because it shows that Enron did in fact fund climate alarmism(5). Only one problem: it doesn’t. So that’s two false sources for one false claim. Good going Matt.
2. Ridley hilariously maintained that “no significant error has come to light” in Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Sceptical Environmentalist. I pointed out that it contains so many significant errors that an entire book – The Lomborg Deception by Howard Friel – was required to document them. Now, without having read Friel’s book, Ridley accepts that it is all nonsense on the word of … Bjorn Lomborg! Quite right too: what more objective reviewer of a book about Bjorn Lomborg’s errors could there be than, er, Bjorn Lomborg? Ridley then has the blazing chutzpah to state that “Monbiot should be embarrassed to be relying on a source of this quality”. No, he doesn’t mean Lomborg’s rebuttal, he means Friel’s book.
3. In his book, Ridley asserts that “eleven of thirteen populations” of polar bears are “growing or steady”. I pointed out that there are in fact 19 populations of polar bears, and cited the most comprehensive and widely-respected research, collated by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, which suggests that of those whose fluctuations have been measured, one is increasing, three are stable and eight are declining(6). Forgetting that he made a definitive statement about the bears’ status in his book, Ridley now says that “nobody really knows the truth and lots of different claims are out there.” Yes, but some are more credible than others. Ridley chose to ignore the most credible studies, while relying instead on:
“(a) a source that doesn’t mention polar bears, (b) an oil–industry funded source, and (c) a non–peer reviewed lecture at an undisclosed location in an undisclosed month and year”.
The quote is from Howard Friel, who has been drawn into this debate by Ridley’s gross mischaracterisation of his book, and has done some digging of his own(7).
So, given that Ridley has bothered to reply on this point, you’d imagine that he would come up with some powerful data to rebut the comprehensive study I cited. You’d be wrong. Instead he relies on an interview on CBC News with a local Canadian politician, who asserts that his impression, after talking to people who want to hunt polar bears or the animals which polar bears prey on, is that the Canadian Arctic population (not the total population you understand) isn’t declining(8). No numbers, no analysis, no cited sources, no scientific study at all. Yes, dear reader, this really is Ridley’s withering retort. And he calls himself a scientist.
4. I accused Ridley of blatant cherry-picking in the following passage in The Rational Optimist:
“Well all right, says the pessimist, but at what cost? The environment is surely deteriorating. In somewhere like Beijing, maybe. But in many other places, no. In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas and the air are getting cleaner all the time. The Thames has less sewage and more fish. Lake Erie’s water snakes, on the brink of extinction in the 1960s, are now abundant. Bald eagles have boomed. Pasadena has few smogs. Swedish birds’ eggs have 75 per cent fewer pollutants in them than in the 1960s.”
I pointed out – as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment shows – that of 65 global indicators of human impacts on biodiversity, only one – the extent of temperate forests – is improving. Eighteen are stable, in all the other cases the impacts are increasing(9). Ridley retorts that readers of the passage I’ve just cited “can judge if I am doing anything other than claiming that ‘in many places’ environmental trends are positive.” You certainly can. Take a look at these two sentences again:
“The environment is surely deteriorating. In somewhere like Beijing, maybe.”
Here Ridley makes an obvious attempt to suggest that environmental deterioration is confined to places like Beijing. Comparing these sentences to those that follow, any reader who didn’t know better would assume that improvement is more common than deterioration. If Ridley really believes that this passage isn’t designed to suggest that the general trend is positive, his intellectual dishonesty runs deeper than I had imagined. And if he can’t see that his selective treatment of the subject is blatant cherry-picking, it says more than he would care to about his standards of objectivity.
The other two refutations he attempts are just as wrong, but I would need several hundred more words in each case to explain why, and I won’t try your patience any further. At the end of this farrago of nonsense, Ridley asserts that
“Monbiot is entitled to his opinions but he has found precisely zero ‘excruciating errors’ in my book.”
I’m sure he found himself very persuasive.
But if no one else is prepared to call him out on this, he will continue to get away with both the disavowal of his own record and the denial of his glaring mistakes. And he will continue to deceive the growing band of people who are treating his book as the self-justification they have always sought. Paradoxically, many of them are the same people who, devoted to free market principles, have been denouncing both the evil bankers who trashed the economy and the governments who bailed them out. If they knew a little more about Dr Ridley’s interesting attempt to put his theories into practice, they might be less ready to believe his misleading assertions.