Petulance over Proof

By Bingley, Lem | Public Finance, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Petulance over Proof


Bingley, Lem, Public Finance


Ding-dongs on social media are ten a penny, but one in early January caught my eye. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson and BusinessGreen editor James Murray, who spring from opposite corners when it comes to action on global warming, exchanged a few heated posts via Twitter.

This particular spat arose after Nelson wrote a piece arguing that public money should be spent on quantifiable needs such as flood defences, rather than on subsidies to reduce carbon emissions, which have a much less measurable influence over the UK's susceptibility to deluge. Murray published a riposte, dubbing Nelson's view "reckless" and his article "a useful précis of false choices".

Nelson took to Twitter to demand, in mocking terms, that Murray "quantify the extent to which flood risk will be reduced by UK action" - confident that the link would defy any such analysis.

Efforts to come up with such numbers continue. University of Oxford researchers estimate that Storm Desmond-level downpours have been made about 40% more likely by climate change, within a range from 5% to 80% more likely. Despite this uncertainty, the scientists believe the data refutes the notion that global warming is not a contributing factor; the recent torrential rainfall is not simply the latest wiggle of Britain's capricious weather.

But for me, the item of most note in the Twitter exchange is Nelson's petulant demand for proof before action. As if the world ever worked like that.

A great many areas of significant spending, from defence to public health, are based on the commonplace notion that prevention is better than cure. …

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