Monckton: still digging for failure

By Gareth Renowden 14/07/2010

Stoat alerts me to Monckton’s response (pdf — be warned, it’s an industrial grade whinge) to the epic debunking of one of his 2009 US tour talks by John Abraham . This prompts Eli the lovable lagomorph to crowd-source answers to the 500 questions the potty peer poses for Abraham by way of “reply”. I have been advised by certain sources (who might be expected to know) that the peer is indulging in a little inflation of his credentials. So, let’s have a go at #126…

Monckton objects to being described as having “no background in science”, and advances the following paragraph as evidence to the contrary:

Since I gave advice on a wide range of scientific and technical matters to the British Prime Minister for four years, and ran a successful technical consultancy in the field of public administration for two decades, and have twice very profitably exploited a previously-unsuspected wrinkle in the laws of probabilistic combinatorics, and I have published what is on any view a heavily mathematical paper on the determination of climate sensitivity in a reviewed journal, on what rational basis did you consider it appropriate publicly to disseminate — without any qualification or verification — Dr. Keigwin’s unscientific guess that I had ’no background in science’? Is this an instance of the care you take, as ’a scientist’, to verify your facts?

It’s instructive to look at Monckton’s incredibly detailed* curriculum vitae (don’t worry, the only Latin in this post), as published by the political party of which he is joint deputy leader, the somewhat-to-the-right-of-Attila the Hun UK Independence Party (UKIP). From that we can see that he obtained 7 O-Levels (English Language, English Literature, French, Latin, Greek, Elementary Mathematics, Additional Mathematics — the latter being roughly equivalent to one year towards A Level Maths (I know, because I did the same O Level a couple of years after Monckton, though not at Harrow)), and four A Levels — English, Latin, Greek, and Ancient History. Not much science in that lot… He then went to Churchill College, Cambridge and read Classics, followed by a year in Cardiff doing a post-graduate Diploma in Journalism Studies. As his CV notes, he was handy with his pen: “Shorthand (100wpm, 100% accuracy)”. At the point at which he began working for a living, I think it’s perfectly fair to point out that Monckton had “no background in science” — unless you count founding the Harrow bookbinding guild as a contribution to science.

His subsequent career mixed journalism, Catholicism and conservative politics, until he finessed a position in Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street. At the time, the policy unit was controversial — widely felt to be a way of minimising the influence of the civil service on policy making. Monckton has had two recent goes at describing what he got up to under Maggie’s wing — in his UKIP resumé, and at µWatts. Bob Ward, writing in the Guardian, deals with the µWatts piece and Thatcher’s appreciation of Monckton:

Indeed, given Monckton’s purportedly crucial role, it seems to be heartless ingratitude from the Iron Lady that she does not find room to mention him anywhere in the 914-page volume on her years as prime minister.

Nor does David “Two Brains” Willetts (minister for science & technology in the current UK government, who was in the policy unit at the same time as Monckton) find room to mention him in a prize-winning essay on his time working with Thatcher.

This is what Monckton’s CV has to say:

Special Adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister. Projects included tax/benefit modelling to address poverty; economic modelling to control government spending; sale of publicly-owned houses to their tenants (1,000,000 sold); mathematical development of indexed mortgages (to make them affordable to the poorest); privatisation of water authorities in England and Wales; psephological forecasting by computer; hydrodynamic analysis of warship hull-forms to expose a major Defense fraud; modelling of retrovirus transmission to plan for the HIV crisis; budget control (e.g. £20 billion overspend on housing budget prevented); speech-writing; and drafting answers to Parliamentary Questions.

Speech-writing and drafting answers? Just what you’d expect of a junior policy wonk with a journalism background. The other stuff? What you might expect if you play with the bundled spreadsheet app on an early portable computer. [Note: there is a degree of snark in the foregoing, but I wouldn’t overstate it — using spreadsheets in those sorts of applications would have been fairly novel at the time. The management accountants I worked with in Michael Heseltine’s magazine company didn’t get them until the late 80s. But calling it “economic modelling” or “psephological forecasting” is Monckton hyperbole at its finest.]

So what else does Monckton adduce in support of a “science background”? “Technical consultancy in the field of public administration” doesn’t count, nor does designing two puzzles and tweaking the original Sudoku puzzle to get Sudoku X, however abstruse the maths involved may have been. The next sentence is, however, his downfall. He claims his “heavily mathematical” paper on climate sensitivity was published in a “reviewed journal”. Interesting choice of words, Chris. The “paper” was published in a newsletter of the American Physical Society, not in any peer-reviewed journal, and was never subjected to the sort of review that would be routine for any scientific journal. Lucky, really, because Monckton makes so many errors his opus would never have made the grade in the mainstream literature.

The rational basis, therefore, for the assumption that Christopher Monckton, Viscount Brenchley, has no scientific background is that the evidence shows he hasn’t got one. The very best that can be said for him is that he has a facility for maths, a wonderful line in pompous prose and a bee in his bonnet.

[* Final item on CM/VB’s CV: 2008-present: RESURREXI Pharmaceutical: Director responsible for invention and development of a broad-spectrum cure for infectious diseases. Patents have now been filed. Patients have been cured of various infectious diseases, including Graves’ Disease, multiple sclerosis, influenza, and herpes simplex VI. Our first HIV patient had his viral titre reduced by 38% in five days, with no side-effects. Tests continue. No cure for Monckhausen Syndrome? Shame…]

[PS: I am officially amused that if you Google “Monckton” in NZ, fifth item down is his adventure in Australia, Picnic at Hanging Sock