Yet More Solar Lunacy

Posted by Ben Pile on July 20, 2014
Jul 202014

A popular notion that has driven a lot of thinking on ‘green energy’ is that the entire world’s demand for energy is equivalent to (or can be met by) the amount of sunlight falling on a relatively small area of land. For instance, this image has done the rounds recently:

The image is taken from this thesis, which explains,

…an area of 254 km x 254 km would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. The amount of electricity needed by the EU-25 states could be produced on an area of 110 km x 110 km. For Germany with a demand of 500 TWh/y an area of 45 km x 45 km is required, which concerns 0.03 % of all suited areas in North Africa (BMU, 2004b).

Hmm. There’s something… I can’t quite put my finger on it… about this carving up of Africa… to exploit its resources… It seems eerily reminiscent of something… But let’s put that to the side, and just consider the technical practicalities.

A 254km x 254km space would require 64,516,000,000 1 metre square PV cells to cover it. Or, in other words, just over nine square meters per person in the world. But this is assuming that we all use the same amount of electricity. We don’t. Greens want us to cut the amount of electricity we use. But I don’t see any virtue in this at all. The minimum people in the future should expect is the same as people living in the highest income countries today. That is to say it would be a good thing if commodities such as electricity become cheaper and more abundant, making it possible for people to do more of a greater number of things.

So what would such a world look like? According to the world bank, the per capita consumption of electricity is 8,905 kilowatt hours in ‘high income’ countries. Multiplying this by 7 billion gives us 62,335 terawatt hours. The thesis referred to above says that a 1km sq area can produce 250GWh of electricity a year. Therefore, we’d need around a quarter of a million square km, or an area 500 km on each side. That’s 250 billion solar panels, or 36 per person. And this is before we have considered other energy uses — heat and transport, in particular.

8,950kWh only gives you 118 hours in a 75kW car. Even if each person only used the equivalent of around 2 hours a week, we’d now need an area twice as big as the one proposed by the thesis. Let’s give future generations an hour a day in a 75kw car (or some vehicle, which has not been invented yet). That’s 27,375kwh per year.

And we must consider flight. This article suggests that “a 747 flying five hours from San Francisco to Washington D.C. consumes 700,000 KWhs of energy”. According to British Airways, a 747-400 can carry 345 passengers. So that’s 2,029kWh per passenger for a five hours flight. 4,058 if we include the return journey. Now, let us be generous to future generations, and afford them a minimum of three such journeys a year each. That’s 12,174kWh per year each.

It is much harder to estimate how much future generations might depend on controlling their temperature. For this, I’m going to use the UK figure, assuming that it’s roughly between a hot and a cool place. And that where, in warmer climes, people will use this much on cooling, in colder climes the same will be used for heating. The average UK home uses around 16,000 kWh of gas, used mainly to heat space, according to DECC. And the UK’s 63 million people live in 28 million homes. So that’s an average of 7,111KWh per person.

This gives us a total of 55,565 kWh per person. And we should factor in population growth. Let’s say 10 billion at some point. That’s a requirement of 555,650,000 gWh, which in turn would require an area of 2,222,600 square KM, or an area just shy of 1,500km on its side, encompassing some 2,222,600,000,000 solar panels. Here’s the thesis image, compared with what I imagine the future to look like:

Now, of course, some if this is unfair. Solar PV will become more efficient. And so will our use of energy. But it is naive to think that becoming more efficient with our use of a thing means we use less of a thing. For one very big example, we might begin to stop relying on natural processes such as the weather and sun to produce crops. We might start to grow crops indoors, lit artificially. And we might at last begin to take transport seriously, such that a daily commute of a thousand miles or more is possible and even comfortable. And it is naive to only see future energy demand only in the terms of current energy demand. Everything is likely going to be powered by electricity in the future, rather than by fuels as such, so we should not discriminate between energy used to power iPods, and energy used to power jet planes. Energy is energy. In spite of the obvious problems with such back-of-an-envelope of estimations, I believe my estimate is much safer. It demonstrates that as simple as carving up north Africa sounds — it’s been tried before, of course — it belies a great deal of complexity which the thesis’s graphic neglects.

However, my intention is not to pour water on the thesis, which is why I haven’t referred to it by name. I am agnostic about solar, even if it means we need a panel the size of a country to make it work.

What concerns me is the extent of solar evangelism, and the excesses of its proselytisers. What caught my eye recently was this bold claim in the Guardian.

Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete

You what?

As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it’s used. Centralised, coal-fired power is over.

The basis for Giles Parkinson’s claim is not in fact a revolution in solar technology, but merely an artefact of a distorted market. This is how Parkinson explains it:

Last week, for the first time in memory, the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day.

For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.

Negative prices sounds like a good thing. Better even than free food, food that you get paid to eat. But just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a lunch you get paid to eat. But negative prices in fact mean there is trouble on the grid — it is at risk of becoming unstable. Paying people to consume it means paying people to take away a dangerous surplus.

The links provided by Parkinson all refer to his other articles, which provide only slightly more information. This article contains the following graphic of electricity demand and price in Queensland over a 48 hour period.

Says Parkinson,

On Tuesday this week, the wholesale price of electricity (in red in graph above) skirted around zero for several hours in the afternoon, and on Wednesday they plunged to minus $100/MWh at 2.20. (They were back at zero on Thursday morning between 11am and noon).

As an inspection of the graph reveals, the graph starts on Tuesday 1 July, at 11pm. So it seems that Parkinson is at best confused about the point at which the graph shows the wholesale price of electricity ‘skirting around zero’, apparently confusing early morning prices for the previous afternoon prices. Here is a graph of the price data, from 00:00 on 1 July 2014 through to 23:59 on Wednesday 2 July, so that we can be clear that what Parkinson claimed to have happened did not in fact happen.

To the best of my understanding — and I hope Australian readers will forgive me for my ignorance of their country’s geography (I hope one day to be able to afford the price of a ticket) — Queensland does not typically experience sunlight between the hours of 2 and 4 AM. So the notion that solar PV pushed the price of electricity down during this time seems far-fetched indeed.

Then there is the matter of the low/negative prices later on Wednesday. The sample rate of this graph is 30 minutes. And as we can see, there are no negative prices at this scale, meaning that the price was negative perhaps for about 5 minutes. During that 30 minute window, yes, the average RRP was much closer to zero, as it had been 12 hours earlier. But how significant is this?

A clue as to Parkinson’s misconception is given in both articles. In the Guardian, he says,

That’s not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office building are in use, factories are in production. That’s when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money.

And at the other article, he explains,

Daytime electricity prices have historically been the “cream” on the cake for electricity generators because that is when demand is usually the highest, and prices too.

But this idea of there being a difference between day and night energy demands — for Queensland, at least — is very much an oversimplification, as this graph of price and demand shows.

Here, there are not two features of demand throughout the day — night and day — but four: an early morning trough, a late morning peak, an afternoon trough, and an evening peak. It is true that many electricity suppliers offer day and night rates to consumers with the right equipment. But the idea that prices are highest in the day because that is when demand is greatest misunderstands this pricing strategy. Cheaper rates were offered at night because supply exceeded demand. There is an important difference. The backbone of an energy grid — the bit that does the heavy lifting — are its ‘baseload’ generators. These are typically large coal-fired plants, which cannot easily be ramped up and down to follow demand. (In fact, cyclying them up and down reduces their productivity over time). It would be more expensive to turn these generators off overnight than it is to keep them running.

The afternoon dip in demand is not quite as pronounced as the early morning dip. But it is not far off. Between 8.30 am and 1.30pm in Queensland on Wednesday 2 July, demand fell from 6699MW to 5222MW. During this time, however, the output from the region’s solar panels increased, as the sun rose in the sky. Then, as the sun begins its descent again, and so output from solar falls, demand rises to the evening peak. So solar supply happens to correspond inversely to demand. But Parkinson ignores the demand curve with four features, and uses the day-night understanding of demand, to make the claim that ‘The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head’.

What solar in fact turns on its head is a sensible grid design that responds to need. In the UK, renewable sources of energy take priority on the basis that this will displace carbon-emissions. This takes the form of subsidies for renewable generators and obligations on suppliers to take it. I understand the situation is the same in parts of Australia. So the grid now has a harder job to follow demand, having to cope with excess of unwanted midday output from solar, while keeping baseload generators online, so that demand can still be met in the middle of the night. So if Parkinson is right to claim that “Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete”, it would be because solar, in spite of the sun being free, costs more than coal, and it is given priority on the grid.

The fact that solar power caused such disruption to a grid for five minutes on a Wednesday afternoon does not mean that solar is capable of displacing coal, gas, oil or uranium. The only way Parkinson could make such a claim would be a situation in which the grid was free to choose the best suppliers and solar PV was not given any subsidy.

The extraordinary claims made by solar evangelists require very little numerical investigation to be shown as so much bullshit. The Guardian, for obvious instance, couldn’t wait to reproduce Parkinson’s claims, apparently without any fact-checking or scrutiny. Yet anyone with an internet connection and a copy of Microsoft Excel can show that not only does Parkinson make significant mistakes confusing times of day/night, and in misunderstanding of the structure of the electricity market and its prices, his interpretation lacks any sense of proportion. And even the specialist press was not far behind the Guardian. Even the experts in the renewable energy sector at Business Green do not have their critical faculties engaged when a positive slant on solar energy is possible. In other words, the broader green energy sector is not capable of keeping its own members in check. Hubris and hyperbole is informing the public debate that is predominantly presented as one divided between scientists and ‘deniers’.

This all echoes the claims made by Bloomberg New Energy Finance back in April. “CHINA’S 12GW SOLAR MARKET OUTSTRIPPED ALL EXPECTATIONS IN 2013″ claimed the news-agency-turned-green-lobbying outfit. But as I pointed out, this revolutionary step amounted to no more than “0.89 watts of net capacity per person”. It’s not even enough to charge a smartphone, much less power a dynamic, growing, industrial economy.

Solar evangelists have convinced themselves, it seems, that we’re on the brink, if not in the middle of a ‘solar revolution’. Yet the evidence suggests that solar PV in particular is at best nothing more than an expensive and possibly even dangerous hindrance to the normal operation of electricity grids, yet. It is like marketing fruit flavourings and sugary water as a ‘health drink’ — the contents doing the exact opposite of ‘what it says on the tin’.

Technological revolutions past have important characteristics. They typically positively transform our lives, or at least create the possibility of a new way of life. Even though they may create new problems, the problems they do create are preferable to the problems they have solved. We have first world problems where we once had third world problems. Second, they make it possible to produce more for less. There is no such thing as a technological revolution which makes things more expensive or less abundant.

Even if solar energy ‘works’, or at least becomes economic feasible, it will never produce a ‘revolution’. It cannot transform our lives for the better by virtue of becoming more abundant and cheaper. The indeterminacy of sunlight means solar generation is in fact likely to be an irritation for our way of life, just as it is an impediment to the safe operation of the grid. And this has implications for price. Even if the holy grail of energy storage were to be found, such that massive batteries could store surplus energy until it was needed, this would not likely reduce the price of energy by any significant margin, but increase it. And even if solar panels could be produced cheaply, the key commodity would not be the price of panels, but the price of land. Even if it were possible to locate trillions of solar panels where the cheapest real estate in the world can be found, that real estate would do what all sought-after real estate does. We would exchange our putative dependence on fossil fuels with dependence on something far more fickle: land. And a vast area of land, at that.

And all these technological developments, which solar evangelists promise us are, like the revolution, just around the corner, are only pertinent to a discussion about choice of technique in the future if we consider them in relation to other potential developments. Fusion, perhaps. More fission. More fusion-fission hybrids. These are my favourites, because they promise ever less dependence on natural processes or goods light sunlight and land, and their enormous potential is described by Einstein’s equation, not by the comparatively paltry amount of sunlight falling on an area of land at the equator at noon.

Let us compare pipe dreams, then. The following presentation from Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin suggests that the company will have produced a 100MW fusion reactor with a footprint of just 8 square metres by 2017, and will be ready for commercial development by the mid 2020s.

Remember that 8 square metres of solar panels could, even if they were 100% efficient, only produce 8kW at noon, at the equator, on a cloudless day. The Lockheed Martin application would be 12,500 times more powerful. Over the course of 24 hours, the Lockheed Martin application would produce 125,000 times as much energy as the solar panels. Returning to our future scenario in which the world’s ten billion people require 555,650 TWH… this requirement could be met by 634,304 fusion reactors, which would have a combined footprint of just five square kilometres. And they would be capable of working 24/7. They would be mobile, operating on or off the grid, according to demand. The could be used to produce electricity, of course, but also they could power ships, and desalinate and pump water to where it is needed. They could produce fuels for vehicles that are not yet able to run on electricity.

So why are the solar evangelists not jumping up and down for joy that something even better than sunlight may have just been discovered, which requires little more than seawater as a fuel? Why are climate bureaucracies all over the world not demanding subsidies for this zero-carbon source of power? Why aren’t green politicians promising that a real energy revolution is just around the corner? After all, Lockheed Martin’s plans are as well developed as solar energy is. Solar panels work in principle. In practice, they have yet to contribute anything useful.

Indeed, why is it that discussions about Lockheed Martin’s prototype and other reactor designs are more easily characterised as an optimistic but sober treatment of the facts, whereas solar zealots quickly lose control of their faculties when as little as a megawatt is added to the grid anywhere in the world?

I don’t mean to propose here that those of us who understand the value of energy start behaving like solar evangelists, and to start creating unrealistic expectations of Lockheed Martin’s development. The point is rather that the virtues of the technology itself are not enough to explain the solar evangelist’s excitement. Something else must be going on, because solar energy is, quite simply, not at all exciting in any respect.

What is that something? Is it madness? Is it simple dyscalculia? Is it even really solar power that the solar evangelists want?


UPDATE.

I was surprised by Queensland’s demand curve — though perhaps not as surprised as Parkinson. My understanding of demand in the UK, at least was similar to his — that there is a peak and a trough once per 24 hour cycle. So I had a quick check of the UK’s demand curve.

This is interesting. It seems that the UK and Australia have dissimilar demand patterns — which is born out by data from the other Australian territories. On the other hand, the UK has a much larger population than the whole of Australia, let alone just one territory. Furthermore, it seems possible that, perhaps by virtue of its size and by the nature of its industries, the UK may be able to better shape the demand curve. This notion seems to be at least partly supported by this weekend’s demand curve:

NB the Y Axis does not start at zero — I’ve moved the graph down to emphasise the signal. But it does show a pronounced 4-feature curve, rather than the more sinusoidal pattern of weekday demand.

There is an interesting implication here. Whereas the emphasis of many greens is in ‘decentralised grids’, in reality, a centralised grid is much better able to absorb the fluctuation of solar output (and other renewables). In other words, solar needs coal, gas and uranium. Lots of it.

But Parkinson doesn’t think so.

The next step, of course, is for those households and businesses to disconnect entirely from the grid. In remote and regional areas, that might make sense, because the cost of delivery is expensive and in states such as Queensland and WA is massively cross-subsidised by city consumers.

In other words, from madness to suicide in one step.

Monbiotism. Again.

Posted by Ben Pile on June 18, 2014
Jun 182014

It’s been nearly a year since this blog last took a look at Monbiot’s thinking. He used to be a favourite, epitomising the green movement’s excesses in each of his Guardian stories. But as useful as it is to see what goes on in the fantasy world that environmentalists live in, it is necessary not to credit them with too much influence. Monbiot’s accent, position on a broadsheet newspaper and style is all that separates him from the man wearing a The-End-is-Nigh sandwich board. Catastrophists are, in general, lonely, powerless, paranoid and daft — characteristics which are as much causes as they are symptoms of each other. Catastrophists disappear into themselves. Nonetheless, Monbiot’s ideas get printed in a national newspaper.

Monbiot has declared that ‘Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear‘. This is not Monbiot’s first epiphany…

If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own.

… His earlier turn-around was his grudging acceptance of nuclear power, which he had spent much of his life campaigning against. Like many other greens, he tore into his erstwhile comrades as ‘deniers’. But like his fellow traveller on some kind of road to a nuclear energy Damascus, Mark Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t really able to reflect deeply on the position he once held so strongly. But unlike Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t able to go as far as singing the praises of genetically engineered crops. Lynas was the victim of corporate propaganda, he complained. How quickly greens turn on each other with the terms they used for climate sceptics.

And Monbiot is not the first to realise that environmentalism is better at alienating than encouraging people. Way back in 2008, I posted this little clip of Caroline Lucas, who had suddenly realised that environmentalists lack a positive message.

Yet at the very same event, she couldn’t help but resort to the alarmism she now wanted to eschew in favour of a more optimistic message.

Lucas wanted to sustain her cake and eat it. But you cannot emphasise a positive message while blackmailing people with stories of catastrophe. Either we’re doomed, or we’re not. Without the doom, environmentalism means nothing at all. The point that this blog has made is that it is no coincidence that negative stories about ecological Armageddon seem to dominate a politically-sterile moment of history. Scare stories are how authorities legitimise themselves, and how political arguments are formulated in these inert times. Environmentalists claim to have transcended ‘ideology’, and have grounded themselves in ‘science’, but in fact epitomise the character of contemporary politics: too cowardly to commit to any principles or ideas; too vain to reflect on criticism; and utterly promiscuous with ‘facts’. ‘Science is a fig leaf.

What is it that such traits force people to do in the face of failure? Blame other people… Monbiot, again…

“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?” several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.

It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue”. People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.

This blog is in its eighth year of telling Monbiot that he emphasises threats, and pointing out that he is forced to use the language of threat because he cannot express a positive argument. But rather than listen to criticism from without the green camp, he preferred to sustain the myth of scientists-versus-deniers. So what of this theory, that Monbiot would reach more people, if only he could emphasis the jolly, fluffy and cuddly side of the doomsters’ credos?

Ivo Vegter has an answer.

Monbiot makes it clear: he doesn’t think that “climate breakdown” and “mass extinction” are no longer threats. He still thinks his purpose is “saving the planet”, as if he is some sort of holier-than-thou messiah who can promise us a place in paradise if only we wouldn’t squirm under his gentle, guiding hand.

But he realises he’s been quite annoying about it, which must be why we’re not listening to him. And that is a public relations problem. It is a matter of changing how he and his allies in the environmental movement communicate. Like a priest who feels he’s lost the the youth to dancing and wickedness, Monbiot thinks it’s about “changing the language” to be less “alienating”.

It never once occurs to him that his substance, not his style, might be the problem. Monbiot has on many an occasion been forced to renounce convictions he once firmly held. It is true that someone who is often wrong is not necessarily always wrong, but it can’t help his credibility.

Read the whole response, because it is excellent. I will pick up on just one point:

To Monbiot’s mind, repeatedly being proven wrong by both argument and history couldn’t possibly be why environmentalists lack credibility when they warn about threats. No, he thinks it is because the green left fails to heed “psychologists and cognitive linguists”.

Vegter’s point is spot on. And we should see in Monbiot’s appeal to ‘psychologists and cognitive linguists’ precisely the same impulse as the one that drove Stephan Lewandowsky et al to take issue with the structure of climate change deniers’ brains, rather than their argument.

The psychologising of sceptics in an attempt to explain the failure to ‘communicate’ the environmental message does not allow people in general — not just sceptics — to have made up their own mind. It is not unlike being told in an argument that the position you hold in opposition is not the consequence of your thinking about the matter at hand, but because some emotional trauma prevented the development of your rational or cognitive faculties. In fact it’s worse, because it patronises people who agree with the green premise as much as it patronises those who disagree: it says that all people are stupid, and simply need to be tickled with nice words like ‘tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves’, rather than presented with a substantive argument.

Greens are, of course, the first to stand up for Motherhood and Apple Pie. But it’s only later that we discover that there are too many mothers, they’re having too many babies, that the apples must be ‘organically-produced’, sustainably-sourced, and that the pie cannot be eaten, but must be saved for ‘future generations’. But it’s okay, because by not eating the pie, we won’t become obese, such are the benefits of environmentalism.

As I tried to discuss in the previous post, environmentalists think people are stupid. And they treat people as though they are stupid.

In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.

It is this treatment of people which makes environmentalism unpopular, and which causes it to see the natural world in terminal decline. And this runs throughout environmentalism’s thinking.

Another recent example of Monbiot’s writing shows the same anti-human logic at work…

It’s the great taboo of our age – and the inability to discuss the pursuit of perpetual growth will prove humanity’s undoing.

Monbiot is wrong twice. Scepticism of economic growth is not taboo. Everyone has been talking about it since ‘Affluenza’, and since the government launched various initiatives under the ‘happiness agenda’. And he’s wrong about ‘perpetual growth’, too:

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

It’s such a ‘taboo’ that even super rich bankers are talking about it…

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

And, having discovered the principle of compound growth, Monbiot pronounces:

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created.

On Monbiot’s view, ‘economics’ is just stuff taken from nature. More economic growth is more stuff taken from nature until there’s nothing left. Tim Worstall was on hand to correct him:

Think about GDP for a moment. It’s the calculation of all of the value added in the economy. It is not a calculation of the resources used. We do not say that 1 million tables were made and thus we’re richer by 1 million tables. We say that there 1 million tables made and we’re richer by the amount that a table is worth more than the resources we used to make that table. Value add is economic growth, not more stuff.

Greens are allergic to stuff because stuff is the stuff that the unwashed, unthinking masses are seemingly hypnotised by. On the green view, armies of zombie plebs blindly make their way to shopping malls to buy food, clothes and gadgets that they do not need, keeping the system tipping towards the inevitable destruction of the planet. Again: the point is not really that the planet is in peril; the point is the environmentalist’s contempt for the ordinary people and their needs and wants.

Worstall tells us all we need to know about George’s economics. Economic growth might even mean less stuff is used in the production of stuff as we work out more efficient ways to use more abundant materials. But Monbiot makes a bigger claim about human history.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

Monbiot reduces modernity to a pathology — ‘ideologies are mere subplots’.

The view that Monbiot offers can only be true if the coal dug itself out of the ground in industrial quantities, and forced us to burn it in machines that it designed for us.

It was in fact what Monbiot calls ‘ideologies’ that made the progress of the modern age possible. Coal, oil, and now gas, uranium, and whatever next, may be necessary for sustaining that progress. But industrialisation is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It took social organisation to produce the industrial revolution. Capitalism, in other words.

It was no use just having a coal mine if there was no one to mine it, nobody to work out how to use it, and no way of dividing the tasks between people, rightly or wrongly. The coal had been there for ever, as far as humans were concerned. And Wikpedia claims that coal has been burnt by people since 3000BC. It took almost 5,000 years more human history for an industrial revolution to occur, and for knowledge and for institutions that organise knowledge and labour to develop.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Monbiot hates that history. He sees it as a terminal condition — a pathology. It is only a history of zombies, slavishly dancing to a tune called by coal and oil. Humanity itself is ‘unsustainable’. Beset by some kind of secular, ecological version of original sin, it would be better if we suffered our condition in lives characterised by subsistence, in a ‘sustainable’ natural order.

Far from having to ‘ransack the hidden corners of the planet’ to find resources, we have discovered more and more beneath our feet. Gas in rock. Almost unlimited energy in heavy metals. Integrated circuits in nothing more than sand. Highly resistant crops from the modification of DNA of weaker organisms. But Moniot is agin ‘em. He gives humans mere bit-parts in his account of their history, as if he were above it and them, their roles being as inevitable as the unfolding of the laws of thermodynamics.

What better counter to the funk of such a Fall-obsessed fool exists than the author of The Ascent of Man, again, Jacob Bronowski.

Jun 062014

Warning… This is a VERY long post! You may want to skip straight to the conclusion, labelled in bold.


This blog has always been interested much more in questions about what environmentalism is, rather than in the scientific claims made by environmentalists. One could argue forever about what lines on charts ‘say’ without ever becoming the wiser about what to do about them. The argument here is that in order to know what ‘science says’, you have to know what you have told it, and too much telling has been smuggled into scientific claims about the environment.

The problem is, environmentalism is rarely presented as a political idea in the way that, for example, the nature of capital has been discussed between Smith, Marx and their descendants. Environmentalism’s moral argument tends these days to come from projecting some trend or other into the future, to create imperatives in the present: if you drive your 4×4 today, your children’s’ children’s’ children’s’ children will suffer and die. Another form of environmentalism that looks less like blackmail, but which is consequently less useful to political campaigning is the notion that there is value in the natural world, independently of our being there to value it: that a river might have intrinsic rights to be as it is, free from our interference. The latter form of environmentalism is more nuts, but it is perhaps more honest.

The blackmail form of environmentalism leaves very little room for nuance, which is why contemporary environmentalism hasn’t really needed philosophers or political thinkers to shape the movement. ‘Science’ does the heavy lifting that, in other movements, have been done by branches of philosophy, such as ethics, and metaphysics. All it needed was scientists to make their discoveries, and for a few journalists to announce “it’s worse than previously thought”. Once you know that the End is Nigh, (or nigh enough), all you need to do to do the right thing is stop it. This is a shame, because it’s reduced debates about the environment to debates about lines on charts and the circumstances of their creation. The climate debate has descended to science. It hasn’t had any light shone on it by science.

A few philosophers have waded into the debate, however. Back in 2007, this blog noted that AC Grayling’s distaste for oil had led him to produce a less than rational argument. “…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?”, asked Grayling, channelling the contemporary narrative of the time that wars between men are ‘about oil’, the implication being that ‘alternative energy’ sources existed in equal or greater abundance than crude, but that somehow the substance itself turns men into mad addicts. A more easily observed phenomenon is that environmentalism makes very clever men say very stupid things.

In 2008, I reviewed The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who was at the time working our of Cardiff University — an institution that seems to have attempted to identify itself with climate policy. A collection of more favourable reviews can be read at Garvey’s blog. I found it to be a hollow contribution to philosophy — an attempt to make an argument for ‘equality’ in environmental terms, without ever really interrogating environmentalism. That is neither ‘ethics’ nor philosophy; it is just preaching. To a choir.

Garvey tells us, ‘the larger moral problems won’t really bite unless you know something about our prospects, the prospects for us as a species, in the face of climate change. Those predictions are not rosy’. But without the dark vision made plausible by science, Garvey would not be able to make a case for such crude moral calculations – goodies, baddies, tragedies, poverty, victims and culprits – all of which act to displace from the discussion, a political understanding of equality. So much of Garvey’s view of the world depends on the science providing the most hideous nightmare, from which there is no escape, that it’s hard not to wonder if, in spite of his claim that there is more to his argument, the science is the ‘whole of it’, and is little more than storytelling.

The moral philosopher that needs a total catastrophe as the foundation of his moral argument probably isn’t doing any philosophy at all. The catastrophe is a fig leaf. I bumped into Garvey at an event where Nigel Lawson was introducing his (then) new book. But Garvey didn’t want to talk, and walked off, muttering ‘I don’t talk about science’ — a strange reaction from a man who edits a blog called ‘Talking Philosophy‘, the sister project of The Philosophy Magazine.

A post on Talking Philosophy was linked to by Shub Niggurath on Twitter. The post is by Rupert Read, reader of philosophy at that infamous climate institution, UEA, and a Green Party activist who blogs at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/.

At Talking Philosophy, Read claims to explain ‘The real reason why libertarians become climate-deniers‘. This gives us another chance to see what — if anything — is going on in the philosophical ground of environmentalism. And its an undignified start…

We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. …But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.

Straight from the horses mouth: contemporary society’s material expectations are bizarre — people living in the dark ages say so. This is followed by the familiar motif, ‘existential threats to our collective survival’ — the moral philosopher as blackmailer, again. The demand for individual freedom is dangerous, says read.

But is it true that ‘We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger’? Read confuses ‘the demand for individual freedom’ as the availability of stuff — supermarkets and cheap clothes. We should note that in many countries characterised by very strict religious laws, one can nonetheless shop almost endlessly. And in spite of the abundance of shops here in the UK, other individual freedoms have been eroded. We’re freer to buy things, perhaps. But try lighting up a cigarette in a pub. We may be wealthier, but the state is arguably far more extended into the private realm than ever before, my favourite example of which is the ‘happiness agenda‘, in which the UK government began its attempt to take on responsibility for our emotional lives.

It is telling that Read conceives of shopping and liberty as equivalents. But rumours of ‘consumerism’ driving hoards of plebs unchecked through shopping centres have little foundation. The objection seems to be that poorer people can afford cheaper clothing and cheaper good quality food, not kept in their place by the necessities which trapped peasants and serfs in their condition. Read says the end of arbitrary tyranny is a good thing… but does he mean it?

Can he really mean it if, first, he thinks of liberty as libertarians conceive of it as meaning little more than consumer indulgence, and second, if he thinks abundance is the enemy of ‘solidarity and sociability’, as though austerity would unite the Nation once more? The question here that Read fails to reflect on is the possibility that his desire for what he calls ‘solidarity and sociability’ isn’t in fact a desire for order as only he prefers it — that he and his movement have been unable to put forward an argument for ‘solidarity and sociability’, and thus descend to blackmail in order to achieve the next best thing: obedience in lieu of assent. More charitably, Read, feeling alienated by contemporary society and its lack of meaning, experiences the material world in crisis. Either way, the impulse is narcissistic. And it is this failure to reflect on their own arguments that seems to characterise environmentalists’ attempts to set out their agenda.

Read continues,

Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.

Liberty is not a straightforward concept. And so libertarianism is a broad category of thought, not all of which is formulated as libertarianism as such — people who identify as libertarians hail from left, right, and against politics. But the thing that libertarians would most likely emphasise in response to some incursion of this putative rights to enjoy consumer society is not the ‘right’ to consume, but the basis on which such an incursion was legitimised. If you say to me, “Don’t eat that burger”, my reply is not “it’s my right to eat it”, but “what’s it got to do with you?” The libertarian does not need a ‘right’ to eat a burger; he doesn’t think you have a right to prevent him.

It is perhaps a subtle difference. But the Moral philosopher seems to want to render in black and white what are actually nuanced ideas. And this creates a second, bigger problem for Read. As well as lacking insight into his own argument, he does not give a faithful account of the ideas he wants to scrutinise — a fatal failure for a philosopher.

Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.

But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.

So which is it? Is it the preamble, which allows that some libertarians demonstrate the virtues of ‘intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm’? Or are libertarians, as the caveat proclaims, ‘to a man‘ deluded into thinking that they are ‘radical and different’ when they are all ‘exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion’? It cannot be both.

And what are these beliefs? Were they in fact so dogmatically-held, it would be easier to take issue with the beliefs than the act of believing them; Read turns liberarianism from an -ism into a character flaw. The moral philosopher takes a diversion into sociology…

Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…).

Here we see the problem of Read failing to interrogate his own perspective fully emerging. The ‘social and ecological limits to growth’ are not manifesting in reality. Indexmundi reports global GDP as follows

1999 3
2000 4.8
2001 2.7
2003 3.8
2004 4.9
2005 4.7
2006 5.3
2007 5.2
2008 3.1
2009 -0.7
2010 4.9
2011 3.7

Only a few months in the last 20 years show negative growth. This has been discussed previously as ‘the environmentalists paradox‘. The world is richer, and its population living longer and healthier lives than ever before. The limits that Read asserts exist in the present do not exist in fact.

In order to agree with Read, we need to presuppose that limits have been encountered. But it is the tendency of environmentalists like Read to see problems that certainly do exist, such as poverty, as encounters with a limit. In this they make the mistake of naturalising problems, as though were the weather in some far off place slightly more stable, it would give more comfort to the poor. So much for the environmentalist’s emphasis on ‘solidarity and sociability’ — he only thinks he owes someone thousands of miles away a commitment not to make his weather slightly worse. And worse, he thinks that the problems experienced by poorer people are problems transmitted by the weather.

And Read continues to fail to reproduce the libertarian argument faithfully, wondering how it was that the ideology became more popular in the wake of the banking crisis and economic recession. “too much license” was “granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions”, says Read scratching his head. But that was precisely the point made by libertarians.

Just as Read did not understand that the libertarian objection to the injunction “don’t eat that burger” was not his assertion to a right, but a questioning of the legitimacy of the injunction, Read misunderstands the libertarian’s distaste for the regulation of financial institutions. At issue is not the freedom of banks to do as they will such that, unconstrained, they cause some crisis or other. The libertarian objection was that the crisis was caused by government’s proximity to financial institutions. The loudest complaints about the bailouts came from libertarians, one of the most popular arguments being that governments and banks are in cahoots, made possible by fractional reserve banking — legal counterfitting, on the libertarian perspective — to do the bidding of rich and powerful people. No libertarian I am aware of argues that financial institutions should not be the subject of regulation and the law, but on the contrary that financial institutions should be subject to strict regulation, not merely regulation, changed according to the whims of the government.

Read cannot complain that the libertarian argument is hard to find. Here is the first Youtube video I found when searching with the terms “ron paul” and “banking crisis”…

… And he counted libertarians amongst his own friends, who are victims of some dogma. Yet he cannot even identify the dogma to reproduce it to criticise it. He insists that these libertarians are impervious to his reasoning with them, and yet he manifestly has not heard their argument.

But the more revealing thing is Read’s claim that the popularity of libertarianism is driven by the ideology of the moment, with its “alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual”.

I argue precisely the opposite: that the prevalent mode of politics is not one which celebrates the “specialness and uniqueness of the individual”, but on the contrary, has taken aim at it. The evidence of this is not found in shopping malls and the High Street, but in the foundations of post-democratic political institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. If shopping is a distraction from the Good Life, people in shops are a bigger distraction for the moral or political philosopher. It is telling that Read looks for politics in the place you buy your shoes and supper, not in the organisations which in fact decide our futures. And on this point, Read says,

In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)

Read brilliantly — albeit unwittingly — crystallises the phenomenon which in fact has driven UKIP’s ascendency: the arrogance of a political class (in which I include academics who have prostituted their positions to policy-relevant ‘research’) who proclaim that the public are better off with them, but who do not trust the public with the right to make the choice to vote against them. Leaving aside the claims about UKIP being socially regressive/reactionary (they’re not) and their flat tax (which isn’t their policy), Read thinks that anyone who voted for UKIP, but who isn’t rich, is stupid. Indeed, the European Union thinks people are stupid. It thinks people are too stupid to appoint national governments through the ballot box. The vote for UKIP was a vote against the accretion of power away from democratic institutions, and all that goes with it. The possibility that people may have judged that, for the time being, seemingly progressive labour rights might be worth foregoing for the sake of a greater degree of political autonomy has not occurred to Read. He doesn’t credit people with the sense to make that decision.

Last week, similar comments to Read’s were made in The Conversation. ‘Right-wing flames that have licked Europe’, claimed Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Ian H Robertson, were ‘fanned by lack of education’.

Need for closure tends to produce what is known as “essentialist thinking” – which means creating simple categories – for example “blacks” – members of whom automatically have characteristics associated with the category. This easy and quick thinking habit avoids the need for any more complex analysis of individuals: if high NFC people are faced with contrary evidence to their quick categorization – eg a member of the out-group who is better educated than they are – they experience this as very uncomfortable and tend to shy away from it.

High NFC individuals are also very attracted to authoritarian ideologies because such ideologies satisfy their deepest psychological needs for certainty, quick solutions and unchanging, permanent answers.

[...]

Education builds IQ and IQ reduces prejudice – though obviously not on the part of some bright but ruthless far right party leaders. Educational also helps people think more abstractly, and if you get someone to think about a problem in more abstract terms, their prejudice towards the out-group is temporarily diminished.

Heav’n save us from ideologues bearing simple categories and their psychological need for certainty! That the idea of such an instrumental use of education can be uttered without blushes might indicate that the individual isn’t quite the first order of politics. People are stupid — they must be educated.

So not only does Read not even understand his own argument — much less advance it coherently — and not only does he fail to reproduce the argument of stupid people labouring under some dogma, he, like Robertson doesn’t even understand the context of the apparent debate between him and them.

Read continues…

This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…

It’s a big claim. But the reality is somewhat underwhelming. Libertarians like to emphasise their commitment to truthfulness and objectivity, observes Read. But a commitment to truth is a constraint on the individual, whose freedom is paramount.

I don’t think I have yet met a libertarian who has asserted the right to believe that the moon is made of cheese in spite of his knowledge that it is mainly rock (with a little bit of cheese). Certainly, I have met libertarians of a more Randian bent, who lay it on a bit thick sometimes. But Read is just as guilty here, as any adherent of any ideology of laying it on thick.

Note the conspicuous absence in Read’s argument of what Truth has been denied. He says the libertarian denies ‘limits to growth’, but the argument is about ‘denial’ of climate change. And there is good historic and scientific evidence that the limits to growth thesis has been wrong since its inception, as evidenced in no small part by the continued existence of England, which Ehrlich predicted would have been destroyed by now.

This lack of precision in Read’s argument is a case of what I call a a consensus without an object. Although a libertarian might well agree that CO2 absorbs/scatters IR radiation, and that this will produce a warming effect, and agree that this effect could cause problems, and could even agree that it requires the intervention of some agency, he doesn’t have to agree with Read that this represents either a global catastrophe in the making, or a palpable ‘limit to growth’. Read gets to claim as the consensus position whatever suits his argument, without attention to the actual substance of the consensus, or its putative denial. He uses climate change and ‘limits to growth’ interchangeably.

This cannot be over-stated. The actual consensus on climate change is largely inconsequential, and does not yet include either the claim that any significant Nth-order detrimental effect of climate change has been detected, or that any projected consequence can only be addressed through mitigation, rather than through measures that I wouldn’t even call ‘adaptation’. Most future and extant problems that are attributed to climate change are problems that would not exist in a wealthy (or wealthier) economy. But growth, says Read, is impossible, it has reached its physical limit. And in this move he reveals that the apparent scientific conclusion of the ‘limits to growth’ thesis is in fact the premise of its political argument. Read takes it for granted. That does not make the prognostications that Read takes at face value wrong, but it does raise a question mark over what he claims as unimpeachable truth. One can make the point that somebody standing at the edge of the sea at low tide faces death if he does not move. But he has legs and can walk, and likely has the will to survive. The projection is correct, scientifically sound, True. But it is not the whole story, and worse, takes competing accounts of what is going on, and what could happen off the table, to force us into a course of action.

This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”

Read does not know his own movement’s history very well. It was Garret Hardin who suggested that private property could solve the problem of environmental destruction. In the tragedy of the commons, Hardin argued that privatising common land was the best measure against over-exploitation by ‘free-riders’. Hardin’s theory is the ground for cap-and-trade and similar systems. So in this important respect, Read imagines a philosophical left-right divide between libertarians and environmentalists that simply does not exist (though may exist in others). In fact, it is therefore remarkable, in these green times, that more libertarians haven’t attempted to use the environment to advance their views.

On Read’s view, the libertarian imagines that he has a ‘right’ to his own scientific knowledge just as I have a ‘right’ to a burger, which is trampled on by scientist, whose science otherwise demands deference. This is his ‘gotcha’. But it is weak, in part because Read again fails to reproduce the libertarian’s argument, but more problematically this time, forgets to check his own position. The libertarian’s apparent denial forgets the proposition which has been rejected: Read’s claim that there exist ‘limits to growth’.

In other words, on the libertarian point of view, Read over-states the interdependence of people with the planet’s natural processes. And this is the real reason libertarians seem to ‘deny’ climate change (though they mostly don’t).

Recall that the environmentalist moral philosopher holds the public in low esteem. Compare this with the libertarian’s estimation of the far more robust individual. As I have pointed out previously, the low estimation of the ordinary human is coincident with an emphasis on the environment, and the rejection of both happens for good reasons. For instance, Chris Mooney proposed a while back, that there may be a biological basis for political preference, which, in the main, forced those of a more conservative persuasion to reject science. They were blinded by ideology, he said. I replied,

The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-’ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.

In other words, Mooney’s conservative and Read’s libertarian seem to have a better understanding that humans create wealth. (And for that matter, so too did many Marxists). On the limits to growth perspective, humans merely take wealth from nature. What Read describes as ‘interdependence’ between ourselves and with the natural world, isn’t as much a departure from the limits of consumerism, but their fullest possible expression: we are just consumers, not producers or creators. Moreover, rather than putting us into a more healthy relationship with each other (and the natural world) than is permitted in consumer society (to the extent that it exists), Read conceives of relationships as merely metabolic. Read wants to take you out of the consumer-capitalist machine, and make you a mere component of Spaceship Earth, which only he gets to drive.

In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.

But read disagrees:

This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself. . . Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.

Read’s conflation of ‘relativistic’ and ‘subjectivistic’ is interesting. Postmodern philosophy has been associated with relativism, especially in ethics. But largely at the expense of subjectivity. Relativism seems to deny that truth can be located. But science proceeds by eliminating, rather than denying subjective effects. You can’t do science without subjectivity. Put simply, differences between subjective experiences can be reconciled, whereas relativistic effects are seemingly insurmountable. As this account of postmodern philosopher Lyotard explains,

Like many other prominent French thinkers of his generation (such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze), Lyotard develops critiques of the subject and of humanism. Lyotard’s misgivings about the subject as a central epistemological category can be understood in terms of his concern for difference, multiplicity, and the limits of organisational systems. For Lyotard the subject as traditionally understood in philosophy acts as a central point for the organisation of knowledge, eliminating difference and disorderly elements. Lyotard seeks to dethrone the subject from this organisational role, which in effect means decentring it as a philosophical category. He sees the subject not as primary, foundational, and central, but as one element among others which should be examined by thought. Furthermore, he does not see the subject as a transcendent and immutable entity, but as produced by wider social and political forces.

[...]

He calls into question the powers of reason, asserts the importance of nonrational forces such as sensations and emotions, rejects humanism and the traditional philosophical notion of the human being as the central subject of knowledge, champions heterogeneity and difference, and suggests that the understanding of society in terms of “progress” has been made obsolete by the scientific, technological, political and cultural changes of the late twentieth century.

Accordingly, on many contemporary pseudo-scientific and scientistic rants in the postmodern era, subjective experience is merely an illusion (e.g. Dawkins, Dennet, Blackmore) — a difficult problem with the question ‘who the **** do you think you are?’, kicked into the long grass — reflecting the genetic determinism of Mooney, and the nasty near-eugenics of Robertson. And of course, Read. The belittling of individuals and their faculties… subjects… is very much a postmodern phenomenon, in which the belittlers grasp for authority. So the really remarkable irony is that Read continues:

The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.

“Postmodern” has become a pejorative used to diminish critics of ‘science’. But Lyotard in fact anticipates much about the climate debate. The postmodern condition, explained Lytoard, is ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’, noting the displacement of religion, Marxism, and other encompassing ‘narratives’ in capitalist economies by science — ‘information’ had become the principal commodity. Metanararatives are, after all, what drives the thinking subject.

Isn’t this what we see in Read, and, in the previous posts, Paul Nurse, eschewing ‘ideology and politics’, in favour of ‘science’, concerned about all the little people, vulnerable to ideologues? And ditto Read, who sees no more in subjectivity than the slavish impulse to go shopping, driven by the consumerist ideology of our time, ignorant of the reality which looms over it. On Read’s view, we’re all ‘unthinking products’ in search of product. And don’t we see in Nurse and Read desperate arguments about whose information is the most legitimate, and should thus drive policy-making (pka, politics)?

But none of this is as remarkable an irony as Read’s closing words…

It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.

The real object of Read’s ire is disobedience. Notice that, in his rant, he does not produce a single instance of ‘the reality of climate change’ being denied at all, let alone in the words of a single libertarian, much less all of libertarianism, in all its forms. We have to take it for granted that the object of the denial is true, and that the deniers denied the object. Not once does he let libertarianism speak for itself… Not even a quotation mark litters his argument that climate-change denying libertarians cannot think for themselves. It is not obedience to reality that Read is demanding, but obedience to scientific authority — science as an institution, not science as a process through which ‘reality’ — the material world — can begin to be understood. God forbid that the un-anointed should be allowed to use the scientific method for themselves.

There is no ‘philosophical sensibility’ about Read’s argument. If there were, we would see an actual dialogue between Read and libertarianism, on the subject of climate change and limits to growth. The ‘reality’, or ‘truth’ to which he demands we submit is not scientific fact, but a presupposition of political ecology, that there exist ‘limits’. Note furthermore, that these limits are not equivalent to ‘climate change is happening’, but a far-off consequence of climate change, if it is happening, and even then, only if we take the remaining precepts of environmentalism for granted.

We see this often in the climate debate: many figures, from Cook and his 97%, through to John Gummer restyled as Lord Deben, pronouncing on ‘deniers’ and what they deny, without ever actually taking any notice of what was being ‘denied’ — the consensus without an object. And we see it so often that I think we can now call this other-isation of ‘deniers’ an essential characteristic of contemporary environmentalism’s argument:

* The ‘deniers’ are never identified.
* No account of the deniers’ arguments is ever given.
* The object of the deniers’ denial is never explained.

It’s like a debate, but without an interlocutor. Socrates in solitary confinement. A dialectic with no antithesis. And from that, we can establish:

* Environmentalism needs denial to exist.
* The deniers do not exist.
* The deniers are simply figments of environmentalists’ ideology or imagination.
* Environmentalists pick fights with phantom deniers to avoid actual debate.

If it doesn’t matter what the arguments are — be they scientific or ‘ideological’, right or wrong… If there is no dialogue, then there is no philosophising about what denialism is. There is only some kind of academic onanism. Meanwhile, a lot has been revealed about environmentalism, and the state of academic philosophy.

Read does not want assent to scientific fact. An entire legion of morons could give their assent to Read’s claim, to qualify as having ‘truly philosophical sensibility’ without him chucking them out of the philosophers’ circle jerk for not, in fact, having the gift of ‘intellectual autonomy in its true sense’. Anyone can assent to ‘reality’ without actually thinking about it. Read wants obedience.

Conclusion

People who want obedience hate liberty. It’s that simple. They see people acting on their own thoughts as a symptom of society breaking down, not a society made up of individuals cooperating and negotiating with each other autonomously, who have rejected the moral philosopher’s bogus imperative for good reasons. And in the case of environmentalists like Read, that sense of breakdown emerges in his views on the environment. It’s an infantile reaction to a world that does not conform to his wishes. Finding the reality hard to accept, he cannot tell the difference between the end of the world and his failure to assert himself over others. And there’s nothing that people with a sense of entitlement hate more than being challenged.

Angry, condescending academics are nothing new. And ridding the world of them would not make it a better place. But the Academy had a culture — was a culture — in which pig-ignorant angry, condescending academics could be kept in check, either by squabbles with each other, or through institutions like peer-review or through criticism from more reasonable academics. Either as cause or effect, academe seems no longer able to foster debate, especially on the issue of climate change. I suggest that one reason for this is the extension of University departments into governance. That’s not to say that academia has nothing to say about the organisation and functioning of government and society, but that there must be some principle, not unlike the separation of powers, which, once abandoned, turns those who can speak truth to power or hold it to account, merely become its instruments.

As we have seen with other UK academics and their departments — Lewandowsky and Cardiff University psychologists have been discussed here at length — the academic has turned his sights at the public in general and climate sceptics in particular. We have seen, in other words, mediocre academics make big names for themselves — ‘impact’ — by objectifying or pathologising impediments to official agendas, using the resources of the academy. Just as Lewandowsky couldn’t take the perspectives of climate sceptics in good faith — he had to probe inside their minds, using a shoddy internet survey — Read does not take issue with the arguments actually offered by actual climate change-denying libertarians, he takes issue with his own fantasy libertarian, abandoning all the rigour and practice that the discipline he belongs to has established over the course of millennia, to score cheap rhetorical points.

In a number of cases, there seems to be good evidence that the academy’s involvement with environmentalism seems to show that it has become dominated by contempt for the public, and hostility to interlocutors, even those within the academy. Like some kind of anti-proletarian Cultural Revolution, counter-revolutionaries are denounced, and orthodoxies — like Read’s weird limits-to-growth anti-capitalism — established. To anticipate Lewandowsky-esque criticism that this is conspiracy ‘ideation’, the point here is to say if only there were a green Mao, with a Little Green Book… There would then be some discipline to the green campaigning in academia, which could, in turn be engaged with, or even better, engage with its critics. But instead of environmentalism as a political philosophy or ‘ideology’ as such, we seem to see environmentalism as a phenomenon in which putative experts in fact eschew such discipline as it applies to them. This gives the lie to the Philosopher Kings. The Likes of Read, Lewandowsky and all those Consensus Police don’t seem to elevate the academy as an institution which is as good for wider society as much as they seem to think that academics are entitled to rule. They have convinced themselves utterly that without them, the world will surely fall apart. But their emotional sensitivity to criticism suggests that such a view is not grounded in fact, and that what is at stake is their own tenuous hold. Like a paranoid tyrant — like Stalin, perhaps — nervous political power lashes out at the threats it perceives, real or not.

Here is Read’s explanation for his failure to win a seat at the recent European elections, and his party’s failure to increase their share of the vote.

I blame the tiny handful of multi-millionaires who bankroll the Party that shall remain nameless, and the national media for giving them bucketloads of coverage while ignoring the rise of the Green Party in the opinion polls during the campaign. I hope that once people realise what the Party that shall remain nameless actually stands for they will turn away from it in disgust, and turn to the Green Party, which offers a positive alternative to the old, failed parties.

It looks like Read wants to blame millionaires — Boo! Hiss! Millionaires!. But look deeper at the logic of the argument, and what it in fact says is that the voting public are stupid, and have been hoodwinked. This contempt is central to environmentalism, which explains why it suffers, even when it condescends to testing itself through democratic processes. And it explains why environmentalism is inclined to catastrophism. And that explains why environmentalists hate liberty. ‘Reality’ has nothing to do with it. The cause is misanthropic narcissism.

May 312014

The previous post here generated a bit of Twitter twitchiness from one of the contributors to Horizon’s 50th anniversary celebration — Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and TV presenter, Alice Roberts. A somewhat partial account of the exchanges was compiled on Storify by a Twitter troll, and can be seen here. Roberts was upset that my post had accused the Royal Society and the producers of Horizon of a conspiracy, and having an ‘agenda’.

This kind of passive-aggressive argumentation is another of the frustrating things, which is not unique to the climate debate, but finds particular expression in it. I criticised two public institutions, but the criticism is taken personally by one of their members. Twitter is not a nuanced medium, so the discussion — such as it was — descended into the wrongs of accusing people of having an ‘agenda’. I did not quite realise that Roberts had such a problem with the word ‘agenda’, which she had introduced, until too late. I tried to explain that it isn’t a helpful word, that it was her word, and that it doesn’t really explain what I was saying in the article. So here is another attempt, for Roberts’ benefit.

In fact, I hadn’t really criticised Roberts. She had pointed out that, ‘It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology’. I agreed, ‘Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born.’ But I didn’t think it was interesting enough just to note that the tone of Horizon has changed, reflecting shifting attitudes as though they were just a spontaneous transformation of no more than consumer (i.e. viewer) tastes. There is much more reflected in this transformation that Roberts seems willing to admit, and there are a great deal of ‘whys’ that should help to explain it.

For instance, one of my favourite historical moments with which I like to compare contemporary thinking on science and its role in society is Kennedy’s ‘Moon Landing’ speeches. Today’s ‘moon landing’ is said to be the issue of climate change…

The science of climate change is the moon landing of our day. This is idealism in a technical language. The scientists and the idealists will, once again, be the same people. The discoveries in the laboratory will be matters of life and death. Nothing could be more vital, nothing could be more exciting. Tony Blair, November, 2006.

That to me is the starkest demonstration of the change in society’s relationship with science: from the technological optimism of the post war era, through the pessimism of the 1970s, and on to the narcissism of the early 21st century. It says something that the moon landing is the bench mark — the thing that world leaders struggling for a legacy strive for, rather than exceed. So Blair (though he was not alone) is forced to create a pastiche of Kennedy. “Look, this is my Moon-Landing speech”, he tells us. He can reinvent the moment, unite the nation, Be the One.

This is not to put Kennedy on a pedestal. There is no doubting that, as much as Kennedy emphasised scientific and technological progress, the moon mission was, from its inception, deeply political, if for no other reason than the fact that it was rooted in perhaps the deepest geopolitical and ideological divide in history. Had Blair been a politician in 1960s USA, rather than in late 1990s UK, he would not have had to try so hard (and fail) to reinvent the circumstances that Kennedy faced — climate change as moon landing and the War on Terror as the Cold War. And we can only guess at what Kennedy might have done if he only had men in caves and foreign strains of influenza to deal with — it would naive to believe that the project to put a man on the moon was, As Kennedy claimed, channelling George Mallory, ‘because it was there’. The end in sight was not just human footprints on the moon for the sake of it, but variously concerned with global and domestic political and strategic matters, not least of which was a grand projet for the sake of an administration. But it was a giant leap, nonetheless. Blair continued setting out his far more modest leaps:

The Government’s Foresight programme which sets an agenda for future action on science is working out new strategies in flood and coastal defence, exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum; in cyber-trust and crime prevention, in addiction and drugs, the detection and identification of infectious disease, tackling obesity, sustainable management of energy and mental well-being.

The way in which politicians pitch and hitch themselves to science reveals much about the politics and ‘ideology’ of the era. (NB, I do not use ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’ interchangeably.) Kennedy’s aim for the moon and Blair’s emphasis in microbes, addicts, fat people, happiness and sustainability can’t be taken at face value. No doubt those priorities became those leaders’ policies, which is to say became items on their ‘agenda’. But there is a deeper meaning of the word ‘ideology’, which isn’t captured by either ‘politics’ or ‘agenda’. Why was Blair concerned with overweight and unhappy people, germs and sustainability where Kenendy was concerned with the lunar landing? It isn’t as simple as simply detecting that people are getting fatter and sadder, or that some virus or other is on the march, and it’s not enough to say that politicians respond to matters arising from without, alerted by researchers.

For example, the putative rise in obesity, in eras where poverty and its diseases were far more prevalent, would have been seen as a Good Thing. Food, glorious food… Even if we take it at face value that “rates of obesity are rising”, as it is often claimed, it is not axiomatically something that ought to concern the government of the day, but might be the responsibility of the owners of the mouths that food is being shoved into. What business of the state’s is our ‘mental well being’, really? In order to make our internal lives, and relative abundance — rather than scarcity — an issue for government, a broader shift in the relationship between the state and individuals needs to occur. Ditto other problems of affluent industrial society that seem to present challenges to government — mass transit and infectious diseases, climate change, and cyber-crime — seem to make the political establishment as hostile to development and economic growth as it is to the distinction between the public and private.

There was no ‘agenda’ as such that intends to alter the balance of responsibilities between individuals and government. But that was in the thinking of the UK government and the direction of its policies nonetheless. And it is not enough to say simply that scientists, with no particular attachment to ‘the agenda’ merely observe and report things like an increase in obesity, or potential threats like infectious disease and climate change. Scientists are not simply highlighting new outbreaks of flu, climate change, expanding waistlines and unhappiness, and the rest, because ‘they are there’. They have likely always been there. And more importantly, there is an extent to which things are found when they are sought. If not sad, fat, potential victims of bird flu, then some other issue would be there, playing the same role.

The ground on which the discussion with Roberts stands is not a landscape with a clearly delineated ‘science’ at one end and ‘politics and ideology’ at the other, as Paul Nurse desired. There are no straight lines here.

Kennedy’s ambition stands in contrast to Blair’s much lower horizons. Giving the former speech the benefit of the doubt, it aimed to expand the possibilities of humanity — a ‘giant leap for mankind’. Blair’s speech promised to protect us from ourselves — even including our emotional selves. This reflects Blair’s communitarian politics and ‘ideology’. There was no ideological battle for him, in which ideas about humanity were contested publicly and globally; those battles were over, and now people merely needed to be managed — saved from themselves, and from things that ordinary people cannot see. This is the transformation that is, with sufficient perspective, visible in politics and its relationship with science, but which is invisible to scientists, generally. That ideological shift is one in which ‘risk’ has become a central concept, where there were once contests about which principles society should organise itself around. That is not to hark back to some golden age of democracy, but to point out that a change has occurred, right or wrong, and to suggest that it should be interrogated.

This is not some fanciful, climate-denier-politico-waffle. Take it straight from the horse’s mouth:

Policy-making is usually about risk management.Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making.

In Uncertainty in science and its role in climate policy, Lenny Smith and the Blair Government’s climate economist, Nicholas Stern attempt to give this form of politics some justification in the face of questions about ‘uncertainty’. The precautionary principle allows risks — which could be zero or merely theoretical risks — to dominate political decision-making. Say Stern and Smith:

Scientific speculation, which is often deprecated within science, can be of value to the policy-maker as long as it is clearly labelled as speculation. Given that we cannot deduce a clear scientific view of what a 5◦C warmer world would look like, for example, speculation on what such a world might look like is of value if only because the policy-maker may erroneously conclude that adapting to the impacts of 5◦C would be straightforward. Science can be certain that the impacts would be huge even when it cannot quantify those impacts. Communicating this fact by describing what those impacts might be can be of value to the policy-maker. Thus, for the scientist supporting policy-making, the immediate aim may not be to reduce uncertainty, but first to better quantify, classify and communicate both the uncertainty and the potential outcomes in the context of policy-making. The immediate decision for policy-makers is whether the risks suggest a strong advantage in immediate action given what is known now.

Notice also, that the business of politics, is now called ‘policy-making’, and is “informed” by scientists, speculating. We all know the truth of what Stern and Smith say. When scientists speculate — and they often speculate wildly — it does not come ‘clearly labelled’ as speculation. It gets presented as fact. Notice, furthermore, that Smith and Stern do not chose, say, a 1 or 2 degree rise in temperature, but a whopping 5 degrees. Worst still is that after speculating that 5 degrees is plausible, scientists are invited to speculate about the effects of 5 degrees. And then on the effects of the effects of 5 degrees. A cascade of speculation emerges — an unleashing of the environmental imagination — in which the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism is unleashed: neither an ‘agenda’ as such, nor as coherent programme of ideas, but all of the unstated presuppositions, prejudices and mythology of green thought, made flesh in a science fiction story.

One does not have to look far for evidence of this in effect. In the latest Horizon episode, discussed in the previous post, the premise of malthusianism was evident through three of the stories presented in the episode: there are too many of us, we fly too much, we are running out of space to grow food, we are running out of water. They were presented as facts. But they were speculation, from a seemingly empirical basis, perhaps, but through green ideology. There may well be a growing population, but it is only a problem on the view in which is informed by environmentalism’s presuppositions. The idea that more people might be better at feeding themselves is anathema to population environmentalism, but yet there is good evidence that they are, and good arguments that they will continue to be, but which is evidence that it flatly ignored or sidelined by certain proponents of the environmental ‘message’. That message says that people are, in themselves, net risks.

The risk of things like avian flu, and fast food — as well as, now, running out of water, food and fuel and people in themselves — are the basis on which political power is now legitimised. Politicians now seek to identify risks where they once sought a mandate. And scientists are recruited into that project, just as NASA’s scientists were tasked with understanding how to send men into space.

In other words, science, as much as it is a technical means to a human ends in our hands, is equally a means to an ends in politicians hands. And that being the case, we can see in stories about how science has changed, broader social, political and ideological shifts.

Back to Roberts’s complaint, then, that I had unfairly accused the BBC and the Royal Society of having an ‘agenda’:

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos You write as though you think that the Royal Soc, the BBC & Horizon producers have a secret agenda. They don’t.

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos At least, I think I would have discovered it by now if they did (unless I’m really thick)

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
.@clim8resistance @omnologos It’s not an agenda- this is the principle at work here. Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Oh yes! It’s a conspiracy. All of us academics who freelance for the BBC are in on it. (NOT)

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Amazing! Who’s setting this agenda? Aliens?

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Fantastic. We’re hoodwinking the ‘public’, somehow, and don’t know we’re doing it. Who’s being patronising?

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance then suggesting they’re too stupid to realise that they have an agenda… that’s a conspiracy too far.

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance None of my interactions with the RS and Horizon producers have made me think there’s any agenda beyond that…

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance (I hate doing this) of setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public.

I think it has been shown here that taking science — especially where it has, on Nurse’s view ‘implications for policy’ — at face value is a terrible mistake. The epitome of the error is in the Malthusianism of Paul Ehrlich, which Horizon first gave a favourable treatment of in the 1970s, and has not done anything (as far as I can tell) in the meanwhile to do anything to rebut, in spite of its total failure (or at the least, the controversy that surrounds it), and its undoubted influence over global and domestic political institutions. And the same thinking is reproduced in the latest episode of Horizon. The Royal Society and its presidents, who Roberts claim have no agenda, made him a fellow. And, seeking the political power that his dire predictions seem to generate, launched a study that proceeded from his work on population. Here is Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics & Innovation, University of Manchester, discussing the Royal Society’s findings.

Roberts wants to claim that the Royal Society has no agenda. But Sulston has just presented a political manifesto, in which he instructs the world that it must abandon the principles on which productive life is organised — trade, on his view. It is as radical and far-reaching as any capitalist or communist manifesto. But rather than privileging institutions like private property or an economic class such as the proletariat, this manifesto puts scientific bureaucracies at the top table.

Politics is, on one definition, ‘Who gets what, when, and how” (Harold Lasswell). And Sulston has just pronounced on the rights and wrongs of who gets what, when and how. He has made prescriptive statements about how society ought to be organised, and who should be entitled to what, based on claims about how he (and the RS) thinks the world is. For the sense he makes, he might just as well have announced that it is flat.

It is obvious, then, that the Royal Society does have an agenda of some kind. It isn’t just looking at things under microscopes; it wants to effect political change in the world, and it wants to be an influential agent in that change. Unfortunately, however, the Royal Society — and I assume, Roberts — does not recognise that this is a political agenda. It thinks it is science.

But not all things that proceed from an empirical basis are science. As discussed above, how we move through and synthesise statistics about society’s relationship with the planet is sensitive to prejudices and presuppositions — ideology. And the problem with ideology is, unlike ‘agendas’ and ‘politics’, that it is often invisible. To the likes of Roberts and the FRSs, it may seem that Sulston’s manifesto is as self-evident as 2+2… But to me at least, he is manifestly not speaking about things that can be understood as material phenomena — objects of science. He presupposes things about people as individuals and in numbers, and their interactions with the natural world, to overstate our dependence on it. He eschews the insight that can be found in political thinking from Smith, through Marx, and onwards, contra Malthus, that it is people who depend on themselves, in spite of nature and her whims. The loaf of bread at my supermarket owes no more to natural processes than does the computer on my desktop. As Matt Ridley observes in The Rational Optimist, it is people, cooperating, which makes this life possible, not Nature’s Providence.

So let us clear a few things up for Roberts.

The ‘agenda’ is not secret, but it is not explicit. The Royal Society and its members do not recognise that their own positions are ideological, or political. That is not to call them ‘stupid’, but to say that science is not always sufficient to recognise its researchers’ presuppositions as political, in order to exclude them.

It is not a ‘conspiracy’. The ‘agenda’ is not to manoeuvre itself into political power subversively ot covertly. But this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the Royal Society and its kin are seeking greater power for themselves, either in good faith, as a commitment to the idea that institutional science should play a bigger role in society, or in bad faith — I don’t care to speculate.

This can be explained simply: a bad idea can be advanced in good faith. Ditto, seemingly good ideas can be advanced in bad faith.

Roberts asks us to believe that the ‘agenda’ is no more than “Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge.” and “setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public”. She is naive. And I count such self-deception as bad faith: Roberts didn’t like being questioned, didn’t like the evidence being interrogated, and she didn’t like the knowledge she didn’t like being shared. And she certainly didn’t like the dialogue with the public she was, for a moment at least, engaged with. Paul Nurse, similarly, didn’t like science being questioned, so he made a TV show about it. Science is not for questioning. It is for our humble respect. Just as TV broadcasting has become mere collection of awesome visual phenomena, so we are told to defer to science as though it had just produced some miracle, the awe demanding our obedience.

Which brings us to the BBC and Horizon.

I don’t see a great gulf between the Royal Society and the BBC. That is to say, I don’t see much of a difference between the broadcasting establishment and the scientific establishment, much less at their nexus. Certainly, the BBC do not seem to have gone out of their way to challenge the authority of the Royal Society, much less its claims — highly contestable claims in many cases. Yet any institution that so many journalists call their home should have been able to find something to say about it. Even George Monbiot managed to call them ‘idiot savants’ for their backing of GM crop production. But this should not surprise us. There is no culture at the BBC of challenging authority in any meaningful way. Its job, from its creation, was to extol the virtues of the British Establishment, and to transmit them across the planet.

The BBC is a bubble. Its broadcasting departments are bubbles. The scientific establishment is a bubble. Perspectives from without the bubble are met with ire much like Roberts’s and Nurses: challenges to the authority and the claims of the establishment are met with derision, the critics belittled as “anti-science”. Like the phenomenon of environmental journalism, the BBC’s science output is scripted and filmed inside the bubble. To the extent that there is ‘communication’ with the world outside the bubble, science is prescriptive of how the world should be, rather than a description of how the material world is.

So the word ‘agenda’ didn’t begin to describe the problem. Everybody, including scientists, has some kind of “agenda”. Agendas are human, as Bronowsky observed. The problem comes in not admitting it, and cementing those agendas into public institutions, away from criticism like some kind of church. It is the bubble which prevents the Royal Society from seeing Ehrlich’s work for what it is, and for asking itself — or being asked — what it is trying to do. And it is the bubble which causes the BBC’s science output to have dumbed down so considerably over the years. As that bubble puts more distance between those within and without, institutional science takes an ever more didactic role, turning its microscope at the disobedient public… “Why won’t you just do what we tell you”.

May 252014

The BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon, is half a century old this year. To celebrate, the Beeb has put seventeen Horizon episodes from the archive online (though these may not be viewable outside the UK). The episodes have been chosen by Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. Introducing the series, Roberts explains,

It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology. The programmes from the 1960s presented a self-assured and optimistic vision of the contribution of scientists and science to society. By the 1970s, the tone had changed, reflecting a growing concern for the environment, and scepticism about science as the answer to all humanity’s problems. In fact, there’s a real sense that technology might even have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. In Now The Chips Are Down (1978), the invention of the silicon microchip was seen as a threat to jobs: people were about to be replaced by machines.

Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born. In 1971, an episode of Horizon called ‘Due to Lack of Interest, Tomorrow has been Cancelled’ was broadcast. The film is not available online, though the BBC’s interactive e-book available for Android devices, Kindle Fire, iPad, (Be warned – the ebook is huge, and will eat up a lot of data space and allowance) has a clip from the episode, and a short comment from Professor Iain Stewart, who readers will remember from the awful ‘Earth: Climate Wars’ series back in 2008. However, all we need to know about that episode is this blurb from the BFI.

Looks at the predictions of ecological disaster made by certain scientists, such as Prof. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, and examines the extent of the problem and the amount that can and is being done to combat it

Stewart makes the claim that in the 1970s, this was ground-breaking stuff, new to the mainstream. However, the following film made for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment demonstrates that the environmental movement (such as it was) had mustered political momentum amongst the global political class, not even a year later. The film shows that the environmentalists’ script has not changed in four decades, though fashion and video technology have.

The persistence of that unchanging narrative is one of the most frustrating things about debates about the environment. That’s not to say that Environmental problems do not exist, but that just as there is a difference between a problem such as stubbing your toe, and a problem like being run over by a bus, environmental problems are matters of degree. The environmental narrative is never presented as simply a problem that might cause a problem for some people in some circumstances at some point in the future. It is presented as a total, encompassing, terminal problem facing ‘all of humanity’, requiring immediate and comprehensive adjustments to our way of life, to economies, and political organisation.

Four decades separated the wild claims of Ehrlich from Stewart’s Climate Wars series, with no reflection from Stewart, or the BBC about the failure of the former’s thinking. Yet it would surely have made for a very interesting episode of Horizon. In early 1975, an episode called ‘A Time to be Born‘ raised serious questions about the increased use of medical interventions during childbirth, such as induction of labour, reflecting, as Roberts pointed out, a shift towards a more sceptical view of scientific developments and the role of technology in society. A 1978 film, ‘Now the Chips are Down‘ was concerned with the displacement of actual labour with machines and IT. Even brain surgeons might lose their jobs, warned the Horizon film. If it is right to question the claims made about the medicalisation of childbirth and the automation of the workplace, it is surely right to question science’s ability to formulate the most appropriate (or ‘sustainable’) form of political and economic organisation of society. But British public institutions are even to this day more inclined to celebrate Ehrlich than to raise questions about his failed prognostications.

(One exception here is Adam Curtis’s series, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, especially part two, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts’ [watch it here]. The film takes issue with the myth of balance in nature, and the attempt to model society on a false understanding of ecosystems. But although Curtis expertly handles scientific ideas in their contemporary social and political contexts, his films are not part of the BBC’s science output, and his perspective and depth of analysis is not shared by the rest of BBC’s science output.)

Back to Horizon, and Roberts’s introduction. Roberts, notes only that,

Looking back at the films, with the benefit of hindsight, we might feel that some programmes lacked objectivity or balance. But these programmes were reflecting real concerns – concerns expressed by scientists themselves about the potentially negative impacts of emerging technology on human populations, other species, and the planet as a whole. In subsequent series, alongside the presentation of more straightforward subjects such as new discoveries, Horizon continued to deal with areas of concern and controversy. The series accepted that, while science and technology could provide solutions, they could also become a source of problems. This, I believe, is one of the real strengths of this long-running series, and the reason that it is still such a trusted platform. Horizon has brought us astonishing science, and celebrated this important part of our culture, but it’s certainly not just a PR exercise for science. It hasn’t shied away from dealing with difficult scientific questions and public concern about certain aspects of science. It has been investigative and critical, but also thoughtful and non-sensationalist in its approach. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but the producers of Horizon have, over the decades, managed to tackle the subject in a way which has both earned the trust of the public and the respect of scientists.

Roberts is too kind to Horizon’s producers. The BBC, famously, has shied away from difficult questions, and has sought to provoke rather than investigate or illuminate ‘public concern’. I have more questions about the ‘objectivity and balance’ of the more recent episodes than about those from the 1970s.

“This is a film that demands action”, says the voice over of the 2006 Horizon episode on “Global Dimming”. “It reveals that we may have grossly underestimated the speed at which our climate is changing”.

Eight years later, the hiatus in warming is mainstream science, which has no explanation for it. Horizon’s mawkish treatment of the idea of global dimming did nothing to inform the public; its intention was to provoke sensation — not understanding — at the hight of climate change alarmism.

This hints at a transformation of the character of science broadcasting over the years, which the Horizon archive allows us to see more clearly.

In 1996, an episode of Horizon looked at the solution to Fermat’s last theorem. Watch it at the BBC site here or below.

Although I think the film gets slightly more bogged down in the emotional aspect of the discovery than it needs to — especially when considered alongside previous episodes in which scientific developments were considered quite coolly — it nonetheless gets into the process of discovery, and has expectations of the audience — the viewer’s intellectual capacities, as well as his ability to hold his interest even if he doesn’t completely follow the mathematical concepts in question.

A later (2010) episode of Horizon — ‘To Infinity and Beyond’ (watch it at the BBC site here or below) — made a far more feeble attempt to explore a mathematical idea.


BBC.Horizon.2010.To.Infinity.and.Beyond.PDTV.XviD. by singaporegeek

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”, says a sinister Steven Berkoff — an actor, seemingly playing the role of either some kind of researcher escaped from another dimension (in which the script from Bladerunner does not exist to be plagiarised by pretentious documentary makers) or infinity personified. “…Things that would change how you see this world. Enough to drive men to madness. … Your intuition is no use here. Faith alone can’t save you. … Is the Earth just one of uncountable copies tumbling through an unending void? … These are the deepest mysteries of the Universe.”

It is bullshit. And it is very silly bullshit. Unlike its earlier counterpart, Infinity and Beyond fails to explore the concept of infinity beyond the prosaic: attempts to formulate a concrete definition of unendingness produces mathematical or logical paradoxes. This could have been the subject for a useful hour long film, but in the hands of the director, it became instead an hour of filler, save for about two or three minutes of insight. It doesn’t explore the development of the concept of infinity and its problems. It put artistic expression — the director’s vanity and self-indulgence — before exposition. It mystified and anthropomorphised the concept of infinity. It failed to explore the debates that exist to any depth. And it made banal, groundless statements with faux gravitas, such as, “If infinity is real, it has implications far beyond the world of science; it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be you”. It doesn’t, you are you, whether or not ‘infinity is real’, whatever that means.

The difference between the two films shows us the triumph of style over substance. The first film required little more than a blackboard to convey complex ideas. The second film uses effects, CGI, a hammy actor, and expensive photography to give an infantile account of infinity. The Fermat film, conversely, gave a clear sense of the development of the discovery in which the personal stories of the participants did not dominate. And and the Fermat film made no extravagant claims about its consequences, in spite of the film-maker’s and participant’s enthusiasm.

Put simply, science as it is conceived of by the BBC’s commissioning editors is not a way of understanding material phenomena. It has become instead something to gawp at in slack-jawed wonderment. It has become a spectacle. The transformation here is in the broadcasters’ expectations of the public. Over the course of 14 years, the BBC’s estimation of its audience diminished.

So what. We’re talking about popular science, after all. Who cares if science broadcasting got a bit naff after the 1990s? This isn’t the point. The point is that the broadcasters’ attitude to the viewer has changed, which may only be disappointing to those of us who expect more out of public service broadcasting. And this attitude persists in films that are more significant to public debates.

And it gets worse.

Another film chosen by Alice Roberts to be in the Horizon collection was Paul Nurse’s attempt to explain what he saw as ‘Science Under Attack’. (Watch it here).

There is not much to add to what I pointed out at the time:

The [climate] debate is multi-dimensional, and controversy exists throughout. But for Nurse, identifying the points of disagreement and offering up an analysis isn’t the point. Instead, he takes for granted that ‘the science is in’, and wonders why trust in scientific authority seems to have been eroded. One reason for this loss of trust just might be that controversies and other inconveniences are swept aside by the polarisation of the debate, leaving a perception that authoritarian impulses are hiding behind scientific consensus. But to point this out would not fill an episode of Horizon. Instead, after a rather feeble retelling of the consensus position — mostly filmed before a NASA video wall depicting the robustness of consensus position — Nurse goes after the deniers, who he suspects are responsible for undermining public trust in science.

[...]

But there is no attack on science. Even climate change deniers will still take the advice of oncologists, and will still express criticism of climate change policies in scientific terms. What Nurse fails to recognise is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution. The reputation of the former is intact; but, as I’ve argued before here on Spiked, the scientific institution undermines its own credibility, regardless of any effort by ‘deniers’[2]. The members of those institutions embarrass themselves, and then step to the BBC to create documentaries in which they scratch their heads about why nobody trusts them anymore.

If you discovered that the food you had bought had been pre-chewed, you would take such slop back to the supermarket. Yet the episode of Horizon presented by Paul Nurse sold the TV equivalent. We weren’t asked to understand the debate about climate science, only that we should accept a cartoonish account of it. Anyone who claimed that the story is more complicated than the axiom, ‘climate change is happening’ was ‘attacking science’. Nurse did not even let the sceptics speak for themselves, much less allow the audience to understand their argument.

As well as reflecting the broadcasters’ diminished estimation of the viewing public, the transformation of British science broadcasting reflects the transformation of British science. It is remarkable that the descent of Horizon occurs over the era in which the cultural authority of science increased, while institutions like the BBC and Royal Society increasingly seem to express contempt for the public. Whereas Britain’s public institutions once sought to elevate the public, they now condescend, hector and belittle them.

Here is the concluding part to one of the BBC’s finest attempts to talk about science in society — Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’, made in 1973.

Let us compare it with Paul Nurse’s effort, nearly forty years later.

This is what Bronowski said,

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’. I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leó Szilárd, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

And Nurse:

I’m here in the Royal Society. Three hundred and fifty years of an endeavour which is built on respect for observation, respect for data, respect for experiment: trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you. We have to continue to use that approach if we are to solve problems such as climate change.

It’s become clear to me that if we hold to these ideals of trust in evidence then we have a responsibility to publicly argue our case. Because in this conflicted and volatile debate, scientists are not the only voices that are listened to.

When a scientific issue has important outcomes for society, then the politics becomes increasingly more important. So if we look at this issue of climate change, that is particularly significant. Because that has effects on how we manage our economy, and manage our politics. And so this is become a crucially political matter. And we can see that by the way the forces are being lined up on both sides. What really is required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideologies out of the way.

Earning trust requires more than focussing on the science. We have to communicate it effectively, too. Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about everything that they do. They do have to talk to the media, even if it does sometimes put their reputation at doubt. Because if we do not do that, it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science, and who may be driven by politics or ideology. This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too.

Aside from the fact that Nurse is not even able to commit the Royal Society to his own principle of debate, Nurse’s injunction is that we eschew ‘politics and ideology’ to ‘focus on the science’. Bronowski, I believe, would have called this dogma. He recognised that ‘Science is a very human form of knowledge’ and that ‘Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal’. What you can be sure of is that anyone who claims that he has been successful in eliminating ‘politics and ideology’ is either a liar or has fooled himself. Moreover, the desire to eliminate ‘politics and ideology’ from what Nurse himself admits are political and economic matters is surely as ‘political’ and ‘ideological’ as the very stuff Nurse wants to eliminate. Facts, evidence, observation and data are all mediated by ‘politics and ideology’. The only way science can proceed in messy debates such as the one Nurse wanted to find a clear way out of is by admitting it, and being aware of ideology and politics, including one’s own, and accepting of others’. In other words, in order to understand what science says (in the form of experiment, observation, data), you have to be aware of what you have told it.

But Nurse’s injunction forbids us from being aware of ‘politics and ideology’, and of accepting other perspectives in good faith: “trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you”, as though no one produced the experiments and data. Curiously, though he goes on to speak about ‘earning trust’. Scientists, it seems are not ‘driven by politics and ideology’. The pond in which Bronowsky stood tells us a very different story.

Nurse’s contempt for ‘politics and ideology’ and ‘polemicists and commentators’ is simple contempt for the viewer. Nurse asks for his trust, but does not reciprocate — the viewer is too easily misled, not being sufficiently equipped, too vulnerable to ‘others who don’t understand the science’. Science is just too complicated for the public. The values of the contemporary Royal Society are now identical to the values of the producers of Horizon: the public is a dangerous, contemptible moron.

The latest edition of Horizon (watch it here) marks an even lower low.

The £10 Million Challenge

To celebrate its 50th birthday, Horizon invites the public to play a role in tackling the greatest challenges facing science today.

This special episode of Horizon launches the £10 million Longitude Prize 2014 – a prize developed by Nesta, with Technology Strategy Board as funding partner, to find solutions to a new scientific challenge.

The Longitude Prize… ‘is a challenge with a £10 million prize fund to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time. It is being run and developed by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as launch funding partner.’ But rather than offering a prize to come up with a solution to a specific problem — how to keep time at sea — the British public are being asked which they prefer of the following challenges:

How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?

Three of these challenges have a clear environmental angle. The section on food, for instance, claims that “With a growing population and limited resources, providing everybody with nutritious, sustainable food is one of the biggest global problems ever faced” and that “The planet simply cannot support the increased demand generated by the spread of western habits. We’re running out of room, we’re running out of resources and we’re running out of time. We need a new, big food innovation.” In Horizon’s treatment of this challenge, Michael Mosley considers the possibility of growing insects for food, and GM. But it’s GM were supposed to be squeamish about, and is the issue that’s presented as controversial. But never mind these as solutions, let’s reconsider the problem: it’s not really food that’s the issue, but the feckless, fecund, uncontrolled masses.

Ditto the challenge of flight: “If aircraft carbon emissions continue to rise they could contribute up to 15 per cent of global warming from human activities within 50 years.” And ditto water: “As demand increases due to our growing population, we also face restricted water supplies due to the impact of altered weather patterns. The implications go beyond drinking: when drought hits agricultural regions, food prices rise”. The challenge is presented as one of a crisis that needs a remedy “before we really run dry”, says Iain Stewart. (Yes, him again).

But why is a growing population still, a la Ehrlich et al circa 1971 conceived of as inherently problematic, rather than as the solution to its own problems? Notice that these ‘challenges’ are presented as being driven by population growth, and are problems for some kind of authority, as well as for science to solve? So much is implied here that needs unpacking. In fact, the world is better at feeding itself than it was when the global population was half of what it now is. And in fact, most of these problems are solved without the involvement of global authority. But it was, however, scientific and technological advance which made that population growth possible. Someone made the observation that ‘Population growth did not explode because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits’, but because ‘they stopped dropping like flies’. The notion that we face ‘growing’ and deepening challenges from a growing population is the opposite of reality. More people, in better health and with more wealth have, and can build more water infrastructure to deal with the problem of ‘water stress’ and food shortages. That may well include technologies such as desalination, as Iain Stewart proposes, or with GM as Michael Mosley suggests (he can keep his insect burgers to himself). But those technologies should be seen as Good Things in their own right, for us, not as solutions to the problem of us.

But the case for positive development cannot be made by science (i.e. public institutions) without the prospect of crisis. And this shows us the reality of the new Longitude Prize and its partnership with Horizon. Nobody would say that finding cheaper ways of desalinating water, producing food, and producing new fuels or more efficient aircraft, (or for that matter, solving the problems faced by people with dementia, of resistance to antibiotics, or expanding the possibilities for people with paralysed bodies) are bad things. But what we should be aware of before being impressed by this public prize, is that £10 million ($16.8m) is peanuts. It probably isn’t much more than the cost of a few seasons of Horizon. If it were true that you could simply chuck £10m at a problem like low cost desalination and, Lo and Behold, the solution to it will be found in just the same way as the original Longitude Prize produced the chronometer, then why not just spend £60 million on them all? Surely even investment capitalists would see the money-making potential in such things as finding the means to provide the entire world with food and water, making the most efficient aviation fuel, curing paralysis and dementia and ending resistance to anti-biotics. They would make more than their money back in a day — perhaps even in an hour.

Is the audience being asked to believe that their vote will make a difference, or are they being patronised? It seems to me that science programming has met with that strangest of phenomena: reality TV and the talent show. All the challenges have given their auditions, and now the viewing public has been asked to judge which they believe to be most worthy. Which solution has the ‘X-Factor’?

Broadcasters used to have the monopoly on film-making. But as technology expanded possibilities and democratised film production, TV networks have had to compete with each other and the internet for eyes. Today, anyone can produce a film with an outlay of just a few thousand £ or $ for equipment (not including talent). The reality TV show and its close relative, the talent show, reflect broadcasters’ need to reinvent themselves, not as producers of TV shows, but of events that can pull an entire nation together. Whereas in the previous century, a TV documentary might have been watched by millions and changed public attitudes, today’s broadcasters need to generate epic levels of hype to acheive the same reach, just for the sake of it. The UK’s Channel 4, for instance, self consciously searches for ways to challenge public mores, loudly… To be more than a TV station, in other words, with a campaigning brief, to end the way the seas are fished, children are fed at school, or the way we perceive our naked bodies. The commissioning editors thus do not ask ‘which films should we make’, but ‘which social change should we try to effect’. Producing illuminating films is not a sufficient public service, it seems.

BBC’s partnership with the Longitude Prize reflect’s the science research funding bodies’ own anxieties about their public roles. A confident academic institution would not need to lower itself to the cultural level of science’s X-Factor. We see in the latest episode the culmination of Roberts’s concern about ‘relevance’ and Nurse’s hand-wringing about ‘communication’, and institutional science and the broadcasters’ lowered estimation of the public.

There is a final twist to this story of change, from great science documentaries to naff attempts to ‘engage’ a disinterested audience. Jacob Bronowski’s series, The Ascent of Man was commissioned by David Attenborough. Attenborough, of course, made some of the most spectacular natural history programmes. But as has been pointed out here, Attenborough’s shows have gone from documenting the natural world, to constructing a highly idealised view of it, aided by CGI and incredibly expensive photographic and post-production techniques. This idealism underpins Attenborough’s latter conversion to Malthusianism — a forty year journey from humanist to anti-humanist. Said Attenborough,

We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now. [...] We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.

Attenborough was wrong. The BBC does not broadcast any programmes about ‘famine in Ethiopia’, but has a huge part of the schedule given over to nature — not even ‘science’ — programming. And he is wrong that things are getting worse and worse. 10,000 fewer infants in the developing world die, per day, today, than was the case in 1990. The world is living longer, richer, and healthier human lives, in spite of the damage that Attenborough imagines is being done to the ‘planet’.

Similarly, the excellent 1996 Horizon episode on Fermat’s Last Theorem was directed by Simon Singh. Whereas Singh in the 1990s had high expectations of his audience, his more recent comments suggest that his view of his fellow humans has diminished:

I suspect that climate numpties (numpty (noun): a reckless, absent-minded or unwise person) are far more common than we might think, and they can be found in the most surprising of places.

This became apparent to me when I was having lunch one day with five physics undergraduates from a London college. They were clearly bright, devoted to physics and fully paid-up fans of the scientific method. However, not one of them was committed to the notions that climate change was happening, that it was largely caused by human activity (eg the burning of fossil fuels) and that there would be trouble ahead unless something changed.

I was baffled – why would little versions of me (for I was a physics undergraduate over two decades ago) not accept manmade climate change when it was backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the vast majority of climate experts, Nobel Laureates and even David Attenborough?

A climate sceptic can either be intelligent or honourable, said Singh, but not both at the same time.

This gesture, like so many other comments made by science commentators/communicators reveals much about how they see the public. Singh’s injunction to the 5 delinquent physicists was not to find out for themselves what the state of the science is — i.e. ‘trust no one’ — but to obey the edicts issued by David King and David Attenborough… And that they should watch this video:

If that is what Singh believes will persuade physics undergrads, what must he think of the wider public?

In summary, the descent of science broadcasting is owed to broadcasters’ diminished expectations of the public, public institutions’ anxieties about their public role, and individual broadcasters’ rank misanthropy and contempt for other people. It is no surprise that when the giants of science broadcasting think that people are a plague, but that we are impressed by £10m stunts, and when one-time producers of excellent science TV believe that silly men in silly hats can convince us to change our minds, the attitude is reflected in the broadcasting schedule, and the public lose interest in “science” and the messages that are being smuggled within it.

It’s worth reflecting again here, on the failure of institutional science and public service broadcasting to put the neomalthusian ideas of the late sixties and early seventies under their microscopes and cameras. If science has implications for policy as Nurse says, then there are many lessons in Ehrlich’s failures, which reveal the ‘politics and ideology’ at work in the ideas that are still promoted by the BBC and Royal Society. They have not been thrown away by Horizon. Indeed, just as climate change rescued Ehrlich’s ideas, climate change and neomalthusianism ideas seem to have rescued the institutions that identify themselves with them. That’s not to say that ‘climate change is not happening’, but that if it wasn’t, The Royal Society, The BBC, the institutions that fund public science, and so many tired old broadcasters might have to invent it.

IPCC: A Damp Squib

Posted by Ben Pile on April 7, 2014
Apr 072014

David Rose has an article in the Sunday Mail yesterday, which I provided the research for. The top article is about the dispute between Bob Ward and Professor Richard Tol.

David Rose asked me to compare the WGII SPM with the chapters. I found a number of discrepancies, which are written up in the paper, and do much (in my view) to support Professor Tol’s claim that the report’s alarmist tone was largely groundless.

The IPCC have responded to the article. The statement takes issue with Tol, first, and then seems to address the discrepancies I have found… But doesn’t.

The Mail on Sunday also quotes some passages from the Working Group II Summary for Policymakers on migration and refugees, wars and conflicts, famine, and extreme weather, which it claims are “sexed up” from statements in the underlying report. In doing so it misleads the reader by distorting the carefully balanced language of the document.

Which document was written in ‘delicately balanced’ language — the SPM or the chapters? And how was this fragile balance ‘distorted’ by the article? The SPM’s language certainly wasn’t balanced. It was unequivocal in many cases. But the language in the chapters told a different story.

For instance, the Mail on Sunday quotes the Summary as saying climate change will ‘increase risks of violent conflicts’. In fact the Summary says that climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying factors such as poverty and economic shocks.

Here is what the article said:

WGII SPM, Page 20:

Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks (medium confidence). Multiple lines of evidence relate climate variability to these forms of conflict.

The SPM links to WGII Chapters 12.5, 13.2, and 19.4.

SPM chapter 12 is concerned with “human security”. Section 12.5 is concerned with “Climate change and Armed Conflict”. I found the chapter to be quite sober, in contrast to the SPM. For e.g.

There is a specific research field that explores the relationship between large-scale disruptions in climate and the collapse of past empires. Relationships are explored using statistical analysis and data derived from archaeological and other historical records. For example, the timing of the collapse of the Khmer empire in the Mekong basin in the early 15th century corresponds to an unusually severe prolonged drought (Buckley et al., 2010). DeMenocal (2001) summarizes evidence that suggests that major changes in weather patterns coincided with the collapse of several previously powerful civilizations, including the Anasazi, the Akkadian, Classic Maya, Mochica, and Tiwanaku empires. Other historical reference points of the interaction of climate with society emerge from analysis of the little Ice Age. Some studies show that the Little Ice Age in the mid 17th century was associated with more cases of political upheaval and warfare than in any other period (Parker 2008, Zhang et al., 2011), including in Europe (Tol and Wagner 2010), China (Brook 2010), and the Ottoman empire (White 2011b). These studies all show that climate change can exacerbate major political changes given certain social conditions, including a predominance of subsistence producers, conflict over territory, and autocratic systems of government with limited power in peripheral regions. The precise causal pathways that link these changes in climate to changes in civilizations are not well understood due to data limitations. Therefore, it should be noted that these findings from historical antecedents are not directly transferrable to the contemporary globalized world. The literature urges caution in concluding that mean future changes in climate will lead to large-scale political collapse (Butzer 2012).

That is an unequivocal statement of caution. And the measured tone continues:

Most of the research on the connections between climate change and armed conflict focuses on the connections between climate variability and intrastate conflicts in the modern era. For the most, part this research examines rainfall or temperature variability as proxies for the kinds of longer-term chances that might occur due to climate change. Several studies examine the relationship between short-term warming and armed conflict (Burke et al., 2009; Buhaug 2010; Koubi et al., 2012; Theisen et al., 2012; O’Loughlin et al., 2012). Some of these find a weak relationship, some find no relationship, and collectively the research does not conclude that there is a strong positive relationship between warming and armed conflict (Theisen et al., 2013).

Still the chapter is advising that we should be careful about linking climate change to armed conflict.

The large majority of studies focuses on Africa and use satellite-enhanced rainfall data collected since 1980. A global study by Hsiang et al. (2011) considers changes in climate over multiple years, and finds that since 1950 and in countries that are affected by ENSO the risk of war within countries rises during an ENSO period. This study is supported by some studies that find associations between deviations in rainfall and civil war (Miguel et al., 2004; Hendrix and Glaser 2007; Hendrix and Salehyan 2012; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012), but contradicted by others that find no significant association between droughts and floods and civil war (Buhaug 2010; Buhaug and Theisen 2012; Koubi et al. 2012; Theisen et al. 2012; Slettebak 2012). There is high agreement that in the specific circumstances where other risk factors are extremely low (such as where per capita incomes are high, and states are effective and consistent), the impact of changes in climate on armed conflict is negligible (Bernauer et al., 2012; Koubi et al., 2012; Scheffran et al., 2012a; Theisen et al., 2013).

I have quoted nearly all of 12.5. It is immediately followed by Box 12-5. Climate and the Multiple Causes of Conflict in Darfur (page 16):

Climate variability or climate change are popularly reported to be significant causes of the mass killing in the Darfur region that began in 2003 (see Mazo, 2009). Five detailed studies dispute the identification of the Darfur conflict as being primarily caused by climate change (Kevane and Gray, 2008; Brown, 2010; Hagen and Kaiser, 2011; Sunga, 2011; Verhoeven, 2011).

All studies of this conflict agree that it is not possible to isolate any of these specific causes as being most influential (Kevane and Gray, 2008; Hagen and Kaiser, 2011; Sunga, 2011; Verhoeven, 2011). Most authors identify government practices as being far more influential drivers than climate variability, noting also that similar changes in climate did not stimulate conflicts of the same magnitude in neighboring regions, and that in the past people in Darfur were able to cope with climate variability in ways that avoided large scale violence.

I’m still not getting how the SPM got to its concern about “amplifying well-documented drivers of these [armed] conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”.

But, on the other hand, the IPCC does identify in 12.5.2 much more clearly that climate change mitigation can cause conflict:

Research is beginning to show that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions can increase the risk of armed conflict, as well as compound vulnerabilities in certain populations (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Adger and Barnett, 2009; Webersik, 2010; Fairhead et al., 2012; Marino and Ribot, 2012; Steinbruner et al., 2012). This is based on robust evidence that violent political struggles occur over the distribution of benefits from natural resources (Peluso and Watts, 2001). Hence, in circumstances where property rights and conflict management
institutions are ineffective or illegitimate, efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change that change the distribution of access to resources have the potential to create and aggravate conflict.

The attempts to create a link between climate change and conflict have been made for obvious reasons: it would help to sell the idea of the world descending to hell, and sell the climate change agenda to security agencies. But it is at best a contested claim that climate even has a trivial influence over conflict. The IPCC’s rebuttal that climate change can “amplify” the “well-documented drivers of conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks” is equally bogus. It appears to me to be a weaselly way of trying to sustain a link between climate change and conflict no matter what the evidence says, through truisms. But even if it were true that climate change could “amplify” “poverty” and “economic shock” we are no better informed about the degree of amplification for any given amount of global warming. And then there is the problem of identifying the extent to which conflicts have been “driven” by poverty and economic shocks, amplified or not. Moreover, if climate change is a problem which “amplifies” poverty, then the problem is still fundamentally poverty, not climate.

The IPCC’s rebuttal continues:

The Mail on Sunday says the Summary warns of negative impacts on crop yields, with warming responsible for lower yields of wheat, maize, soya and rice. In fact the Summary says that negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts, with wheat and maize yields negatively affected in many regions and effects on rice and soybean yields smaller in major production regions.

The article says:

The SPM said:

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence). The smaller number of studies showing positive impacts relate mainly to highlatitude regions, though it is not yet clear whether the balance of impacts has been negative or positive in these regions (high confidence). Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate (medium confidence). Effects on rice and soybean yield have been smaller in major production regions and globally, with a median change of zero across all available data, which are fewer for soy compared to the other crops. Observed impacts relate mainly to production aspects of food security rather than access or other components of food security. See Figure SPM.2C. Since AR4, several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes among other factors (medium confidence).

The IPCC’s statement of the SPM line does nothing to address the problems identified by our article. The SPM is designed to give the reader the impression that crop yields and crop production have fallen. But neither are true. Over the years since AR4, the claim has come up time and time again. And we’ve been able to check claims against the UN’s own statistics.

The IPCC complains that the Mail on Sunday article has misled. But it’s a funny kind of world in which it is known that “negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts”, and yet yields per acre and in total have increased. The IPCC’s WGII SPM was intended to mislead — to give the impression that yields were falling because of climate change.

SEction 7.2.1 points out that

…Formal detection of impacts requires that observed changes be compared to a clearly specified baseline that characterizes behaviour in the absence of climate change…

And that

Attribution of any observed changes to climate trends are further complicated by the fact that models linking climate and agriculture must, implicitly or explicitly, make assumptions about farmer behaviour. […]In most cases, models implicitly assume that farming practices or technologies did not adjust in response to climate over the period of interest.

So in order to make the claim that “negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts”, the IPCC — or the studies they have reviewed — have had to assume:

* That food producers are stupid.
* That a world without climate change would have been more fertile than the one we live in.

There is a very real possibility that the counterfactual scenario allows researchers to pass their premise off as a conclusion: if you assume that a world with climate change is less productive than a world without it, then, surprise surprise, when you compare a counterfactual statistic to a real world statistic, you get a result that reflects your assumptions. Either way, the world is still more productive than it ever has been, thanks in large part to the substances which are blamed for causing climate change. It would be difficult to imagine the following scenarios in a world without tractors, let alone fertiliser produced from natural gas:

Readers may want to investigate further why a lead author of the chapter in which these claims are made enjoyed so many citations:

Lobell, D. and M. B. Burke, 2008: Why are agricultural impacts of
climate change so uncertain? The importance of temperature relative to
precipitation. Environmental Research Letters, 3, 034007.
Lobell, D. B. and M. B. Burke, 2010: On the use of statistical models
to predict crop yield responses to climate change. Agricultural and
Forest Meteorology, 150, 1443-1452.
Lobell, D. B.and C. B. Field, 2007: Global scale climat-crop yield
relationships and the impacts of recent warming. Environmental
Research Letters, 2.
Lobell, D. B. and C. B. Field, 2012: California perennial crops in a
changing climate. Climatic Change, 109, 317-333
Lobell, D., Ortiz-Monasterio, J. 2007. Impacts of day versus night
temperatures on spring wheat yields. 2007. Agronomy Journal 99,
469-477
Lobell, D.B., Sibley, A. and Ortiz-Monasterio, J.I., 2012. Extreme
heat effects on wheat senescence in India. Nature Climate Change,
2(3): 186-189.
Lobell, D. B., U. L. C. Baldos and T. W. Hertel, 2013: Climate
adaptation as mitigation: the case of agricultural investments.
Environmental Research Letters, 8. doi10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015012.
Lobell, D.B., Hammer, G.L., McLean, G., Messina, C., Roberts, M.J. and
Schlenker, W., 2013. The critical role of extreme heat for maize
production in the United States. Nature Climate Change, 3: 497-501
Lobell, D. B. , J. I. Ortiz-Monasterio, G. P. Asner, P. A. Matson, R.
L. Naylor and W. P. Falcon, 2005: Analysis of wheat yield and climatic
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The IPCC is in no position to speak about misleading people about the possibility of reduced food yields.

Its rebuttal continues:

The references to the underlying report cited by the Mail on Sunday in contrast to the Summary for Policymakers also give a completely misleading and distorted impression of the report through selective quotation. For instance the reference to “environmental migrants” is a sentence describing just one paper assessed in a chapter that cites over 500 papers – one of five chapters on which the statement in the Summary for Policymakers is based.

The article said:

The SPM said:

Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people (medium evidence, high agreement). Displacement risk increases when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in developing countries with low income. Expanding opportunities for mobility can reduce vulnerability for such populations. Changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer-term climate variability and change, and migration can also be an effective adaptation strategy. There is low confidence in quantitative projections of changes in mobility, due to its complex, multi-causal nature.

It is worth recalling the UN’s previous prediction of 50 Million climate refugees. Wattsupwiththat had a fun and empirical post on the subject back in 2011 at http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/04/15/the-un-disappears-50-million-climate-refugees-then-botches-the-disappearing-attempt/

This is the ENTIRE section on migration from chapter 9.

9.3.3.3.1. Migration

It is difficult to establish a causal relationship between environmental degradation and migration (see Section 12.4.1). Many authors argue that migration will increase during times of environmental stress (e.g. Afifi, 2011; Gray and Mueller, 2012; Kniveton et al., 2011; Brown and Crawford, 2008), and will lead to an increase in abandonment of settlements (McLeman, 2011). Climate variability has been associated with rural-urban migration (Mertz et al., 2011; Parnell and Walawege, 2011). Another body of literature argues that migration rates are no higher under conditions of environmental or climate stress (Black et al., 2011a and b; van der Geest, 2011; van der Geest and de Jeu, 2008; Tacoli, 2009; McLeman and Hunter, 2010; Gemenne, 2011; Foresight, 2011; Cohen, 2004; Brown, 2008). For Tacoli (2009) the current alarmist predictions of massive flows of so-called “environmental refugees” or “environmental migrants”, are not supported by past experiences of responses to droughts and extreme weather events and predictions for future migration flows are tentative at best. Analogies with past migration experiences are used frequently in such studies (McLeman and Hunter 2010). For example, in Ghana the causality of migration was established to be relatively clear in the case of sudden-onset environmental perturbations such as floods, whereas in case of slow-onset environmental deterioration, there was usually a set of overlapping causes – political and socioeconomic factors – which come into play (van der Geest, 2011). Similarly, a recent survey by Mertz et al. (2010) has argued that climate factors played a limited role in past adaptation options of Sahelian farmers. Given the multiple drivers of migration (Black et al., 2011a and b) and the complex interactions which mediate migratory decision-making by individual or households (Raleigh, 2008; McLeman and Smit, 2006; Kniveton et al., 2011; Black et al., 2011a and b), the projection of the effects of climate change on intra-rural and rural-to-urban migration remains a major challenge.

Chapter 12, section 12.4 (pg 15) states:

There is widespread agreement in the scientific and legal literature that the use of the term climate refugee is scientifically and legally problematic (Taccoli, 2009; Piguet, 2010; Black et al., 2011a; Gemenne, 2011; Jakobeit and Methmann 2012; Bettini, 2013; Piguet, 2013). McAdam calls the concept ‘erroneous as a matter of law and conceptually inaccurate’ (McAdam, 2011, p. 102). The reasons are threefold. First, most migration and climate studies point to the environment as triggers and not causes for migration decisions. Second, some studies focus on the negative geo-political implications of changing the Geneva Convention on refugees to include environmental migrants as well as the lack of global instruments to handle internal displaced peoples or international migrants (Martin, 2009; Cournil, 2011). Third, many small island countries are reluctant themselves to have their international migrants designated as being victims of climate change (McNamara and Gibson, 2009; Farbotko, 2010; Barnett and O’Neill, 2011; Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012).

There were not 500 studies cited by the IPCC WGII in relation to migration as a consequence of climate change. Worse, the chapters explicitly contradict the SPM in more than one chapter. And in fact, rather than depending on just one paper (out of 500), the article quotes from two different chapters’ own conclusions about the range of literature.

A simple keyword search shows many references to publications and statements in the report showing the opposite conclusion, and supporting the statement in the Summary that “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence…”

The implication here seems to be that there are lots of other papers, cited throughout the chapters, which support the SPM’s claims. If it’s true, it is the IPCC’s problem. I checked the SPM’s claims against the chapter references cited in the SPM. Moreover, if the evidence considered by the WGII is contradictory, the contradictory nature of the evidence should be reflected in the SPM. It wasn’t. We don’t need to think very deeply about why such an evaluation of the evidence was omitted.

The IPCC have misled people with the WGII SPM. And it has furthermore misled people about the criticism of the SPM.

More results from the research will be published soon.

One Giant Bleak Against Mankind

Posted by Ben Pile on March 25, 2014
Mar 252014

I have an article over at Spiked, on the matter of that dodgy ‘NASA-funded’ end-is-nigh report.

The article, by the catastrophile and author of The Crisis of Civilisation, Nafeez Ahmed, was soon picked up by dozens of other newspapers, and hundreds of websites, all over the world. ‘NASA-funded study warns of “collapse of civilisation” in coming decades’, screamed the Independent. ‘Industrial civilisation “may be heading toward collapse” within decades because of its strain on the planet’s resources, NASA report finds’, yelled the Daily Mail.

It was written last week. Since then, Keith Kloor has given at least Ahmed’s version of the study a well-deserved spanking for his low journalistic standards.

Ahmed wrote an uncritical appraisal of the study. He didn’t bother to inquire about the merits of the model or its results.

Ahmed, is, though, a catstrophile, excited by the possibility of Judgement Day, and accordingly preoccupied. He responds to Kloor back at the gloomy-doomy Guardian:

Journalistic standards won’t be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don’t like

There is obviously no room, in Ahmed’s version of ‘journalist standards’, between salivating over scientific doomsayers, and rejecting all science.

Weirdly, part of Ahmed’s defence is this claim

Kloor’s journalistic rigour apparently somehow failed to involve bothering to read either my book or my numerous observations over the years on the grounds for long-term optimism.

Which links to yet another article of Ahmed’s, the optimism in which appears to be this,

As energy is the underpinning of a society, the unravelling of the fossil fuel system signifies the demise of the old paradigm. By the end of this century, one way or another, this paradigm will be obsolete. It’s up to us what will take its place – and as the death-spiral of the old paradigm accelerates, so do the opportunities to explore viable alternatives.

The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.

The unravelling of the fossil fuel system is, of course, witnessed only by Ahmed. The rest of the world is consuming more of it than ever before, and so it is a good thing that more of it seems to have been found.

And in any case, it’s a weird kind of optimism, that is predicated on a chaotic transition from one ‘paradigm’ to another, like some kind of traumatic re-birth. Ahmed imagines the benefits of a post-economic society in an era clearly characterised by scarcity, rather than abundance. The environmentalist fantasises that we will re-discover our lost humanity through poverty — that we will have nice, fluffy politics, in spite of only a basic level of life.

In this model, households, communities and towns become producers and consumers of clean energy – and the same could apply to food.

We should reject this model.

I do not want to grow my own food, nor produce my own energy. 1. I wouldn’t be very good at it. 2. I don’t have enough time. 3. I have better things to do.

And I do not want to live in a ‘community’ which is bought together by necessity. If it floats your boat, more power to your elbows (and your comrades’ elbows). But there’s more to life than eating and sh*tting, and correspondingly, more to life than growing food and clearing up sh*t.

I would rather choose where I live, choose what I do, and choose what to have for dinner.

I don’t believe, as Ahmed seems to, that the Good Life exists in the post-fossil world he imagines. People do not discover humanity in subsistence. Yes, it is a Good Thing when humans cooperate to achieve each others’ or their shared aims. But Ahmed can only picture such ‘interdependence’ in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

This form of ethics is as crass as the motivations depicted by second rate Hollywood disaster B-movies. In such movies, some asteroid, alien-invasion, zombies or the incautious meddling of scientists, wipe the slate clean, removing the problem of determining consent for authority through political means — democracy. Only the virtuous survive the disaster, leaving intact those who were brought together by, yes, necessity. The agent of catastrophe is just a metaphor for misanthropy, or at least, the author’s inarticulate expression of rage at other people’s disobedience.

The ethics of doom are infantile. The likes of Ahmed don’t seem to be able to make a distinction between the failure to assert their will over the world and the end of the world. And they are narcissistic — consumed by themselves.

Speaking of crap films. Here is a film version of Ahmed’s thesis, in which he looks for an encompassing theory to explain ALL of the world’s problems.

Mar 082014

As we all now know, Marcel Crok and Nicholas Lewis have written a report on the IPCC’s treatment of climate sensitivity, published by the GWPF. The GWPF’s press release is here, the long version of the report is here, and the short version is here.

Andrew Orlowski has a nice piece on the report comprising a Q&A with Lewis at the Register.

The nuts and bolts of the science have never been of interest to this blog — that is for other blogs. But what is interesting about challenges to putative mainstream climate science is the responses that they generate. The scientific controversy isn’t generally very interesting, except to those who already take a particular interest in climate science’s debates. What this blog argues is that the treatment of scientific debates often reveal much more about the prevailing politics — the context of the climate debate — than a narrow treatment of scientific questions can reveal.

To take one crude example, Exactly seven years ago today, Martin Durkins’ film, The Great Global Warming Swindle (aka TGGWS) was broadcast on Channel 4. TGGWS rightly or wrongly suggested that variations in solar output might be indirectly driving changes in the planet’s temperature. This may or may not have advanced science or the public’s understanding of the scientific arguments. But what it did reveal was the uglier side of the argument in favour of action to mitigate climate change. The climate change establishment mobilised against the film, calling for its censorship. “Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements”, complained Bob Ward, the charmless leader of this new inquisition.

But free speech means nothing if it does not mean the freedom to make misleading statements, either in good faith or bad. My claim here might raise eyebrows. But the obvious problem with Ward’s claim is that individuals like him will shut down any reasonable debate on the basis of ‘factual accuracy’ once the state has determined it knows best what is or isn’t ‘factually accurate’. And as this blog has argued, the political utility of a scientific consensus was understood before the consensus was formed. Indeed, there is a good argument, whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, that a consensus was sought on climate change precisely because of its political utility, other consensuses in society being so hard to achieve in the current political environment. Politics has colonised science, whether or not climate science has understood the object of its study. The point, then, is not to say that people should be free to lie, but that it is an unfortunate consequence of saying that people should be free to speak the truth to the authoritarian impulses of lunatics like Robert Ward of the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics. And it’s not just journalists and the free press that Ward has his sights on — he also wants to prevent academics producing research that might slow the progress of the climate agenda, and to prevent academic journals from publishing that research.

Similarly, and as discussed here, Matthew England’s recent discovery of the ‘missing heat’ — right or wrong — in the oceans followed years of his somewhat angry criticisms of climate sceptics rightly pointing out the missing heat, leading to their claims, rightly or wrongly that climate science had erred. Once it became obvious that the heat was missing, England decided to go find it. Sceptics, far from distorting the scientific debate, had in fact, driven scientific discovery, whether or not they had been right about any aspect of climate science. Had Matt England’s ire been unbridled by such vulgar preoccupations as free speech, democracy, and academic independence — the sort of thing he and Ward seem hostile to — science may not have made the discovery he now claims as his own (if it is indeed a discovery). Moreover, anyone suggesting that the missing heat had found its way to the oceans might have found themselves thrown out of the academy for suggesting such a thing.

Time will tell whether Ward and England have accurately represented the science. Meanwhile, we can see their politics in its bright livery and shiny boots. So let’s get back to the current story, which is Lewis and Crok’s paper, published by the GWPF. What does the response to the report tell us about the politics of today’s climate debate?

There were some rapid replies from science. Notably, Piers Foster at Ed Hawkins’ Climate Lab Book, set out his own analysis of the Lewis & Crok paper, without — as far as I can tell — any obvious ideological baggage, though some sceptics pointed out that the reply was obfuscation, rather than a serious rejoinder. The consensus police arrived, as they are inclined to, to manage the situation in the way only they know how.


['And Then There's Physics' and 'BBD' visit the Climate Lab Book]

The Science Media Centre soon followed with an attempt at ‘expert reaction to new report on climate sensitivity published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation‘. The SMC’s approach to climate is less about getting clear scientific advice to the public debate than it is about getting rehearsed soundbytes from scientists into the press as quickly as possible. This is PR. And so it is no surprise that Bob Ward (him again!) sits on the organisation’s advisory committee. Readers of Bishop Hill blog will already know that Chief Executive of the SMC, Fiona Fox, is chairing a ‘debate’ about the question ‘Are there really two sides to every science story?‘ later this month, apparently in the wake of Lord Lawson’s appearance on Radio 4′s Today programme opposite Hoskins, which caused so much ire. Notably, the panellists do not include anyone from the side which might claim there is more than one story to the climate debate. It is populated, however, by Bob Ward (him again), and Steve Jones, whose views on sceptics on the BBC is not so different, as reported here, back in 2011.

Says Fox:

“I think many now agree that the hallowed principle of ‘journalistic balance’ is problematic when it comes to science and no one has made that point more than me. But I also think we have to be careful about where lines are drawn. Reporting climate change or GM crops as if there is a 50/50 split in science is misleading, inaccurate and poor journalism. But that does not mean that media debates about these controversies should be monopolised by scientists to the exclusion of other voices. I have agreed to chair this debate because I genuinely sit somewhere in the middle and think this panel guarantees a thoughtful, grown up discussion between speakers who care passionately about getting this right.”

Fox’s claim that she sits ‘somewhere in the middle’ is unconvincing. Notice that the SMC did not canvass anyone who welcomed the report, whether they agreed with it or not, as a contribution to the debate. Instead, the SMC’s correspondents belittled it. The SMC trades on the view that ‘science’ produces single answers to simple questions, whereas in reality, science — especially climate science — is a messy process, which investigates poorly understood, and even less clearly defined problems. (If it were otherwise, there would be no need for science). Being ‘half way’ on the question about the appropriate balance of opinion (yes, opinion) in the media is not ‘half way’ between censorship and editorial freedom. The idea that one can be half way on such a question is almost as absurd as the idea that Bob Ward can contribute to a ‘a thoughtful, grown up discussion’, much less guarantee one.

The SMC has not challenged Ward’s particular form of emphasis on the science — and it couldn’t. And it has not challenged the nonsense emerging from environmental psychology, such as that coming from Cardiff University (about which more follows) and Stephan Lewandowsky. It has not challenged the tone or the content of the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers’ comments on climate change, nor the Royal Society’s presidents, even where they have been entirely unscientific. And it couldn’t. What use is science to society, if its advocates are not brave enough to point out the nonsense that is produced in the name of the scientific consensus?

Ward now represents an extreme position in the climate debate, which, it seems clear, organisations and individuals will want to move away from in the near future. But for now, the division that Ward wants to maintain between the orthodox position and its critics is sustained, not by clearly articulated scientific dispute, but by a single, entrenched — although perhaps unconscious — political perspective. It emerges under Foster’s attempt to define the scientific disagreement, and it is perpetuated by SMC’s attempt to control the narrative in the wider sphere. The SMC’s emphasis on ‘expert opinion’, reflects the ‘values’ recently evinced by Lewandowsky, that debate about the climate and criticism of his own work is valid only when ‘addressed through proper channels’ — it ‘should take place in the scientific literature’. Lewandowsky is a demonstration of the academy’s failure, and the SMC a demonstration of the need for climate scepticism, right or wrong.

The BBC’s Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, then suggested that the report might in fact represent the ‘foremost bastions of contrariness when it comes to man-made climate change, admitting that temperatures were actually rising in response to human emissions of greenhouse gases’. It’s the sort of thing we probably expect from the BBC. But it was more surprising from Reiner Grundmann, who, following McGrath, noted,

‘This raises the interesting question how much of the Lewis/Crok paper is actually endorsed by the GWPF. Providing a platform for an IPCC critical analysis does not mean the organisation shares the details, or the broader message of the paper. Maybe the motivation was to undermine the IPCC’s authority.

I’ve always found Grundmann’s writing interesting, there being a strong indication in his work that there’s more going on than the idea that environmentalism is a straightforward response to science. But the lack of sophistication in this analysis was disappointing, to say the least. Further noting Ed Hawkins’s comment that ‘if we broadly agree on this, the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet‘, Grundmann goes on to claim,

If my reading is correct that the GWPF does not commit to this implication but is mainly interested in IPCC bashing, the invitation to Lewis and Crok may have led to a new dynamic. Commentators read this as a sign that there is some agreement emerging, despite the appearance to the contrary (because the GWPF emphasises that the sensitivity analysis is different between Lewis/Crok and IPCC).

And concludes,

It is now up to the GWPF to re-state their position with regard to climate policies: is there reason to act or to bury the head in the sand?

This seems to be the reasoning:

1. Lewis and Crok assess the IPCC’s assessment of the science on climate sensitivity.
2. Lewis and Crok determine that the IPCC over-estimates climate sensitivity.
3. But Lewis and Crock’s estimate is not radically different to the IPCC’s.
4. The GWPF published Lewis and Crock’s report.
5. But the GWPF are deniers of climate change.
6. The GWPF is must commit to the implications of Lewis and Crok’s proximity to the IPCC estimate.
7. The implications are still that a lower estimate of climate sensitivity means ‘there is a reason to act’.

It seems that many are surprised that the GWPF seem to have published a report that doesn’t say that ‘there is no such thing as climate change’. Yet of all the reports published by them, not one expresses a view of the debate as has been portrayed.

Jonathan Jones from the University of Oxford was the first to point out the obvious problem, in this superb comment:

It has been amusing to watch the apparent surprise of many climate scientists at their discovery that many “climate sceptics” are actually lukewarmers. Taking a rough and ready definition, that lukewarmers believe in AGW but doubt catastrophic AGW, one could reasonably place many of the more famous sceptics (Liljegren, McIntyre implicitly, Montford, Watts explicitly) in that camp, together with a number of “maverick” climate scientists (Curry, Lewis, Lindzen). Indeed it has long seemed to me that the unspoken position of Klimazwiebel itself has sympathy for lukewarmerdom.

What does not follow from this, however, is Ed’s suggestion that “the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet”. Or to be more precise that is, as it always has been, a reasonable question, but a perfectly reasonable answer at the moment would be “little or nothing”. Many lukewarmers are also “policy sceptics”, and their view that current policy responses are hopelessly ineffective, with costs far exceeding any conceivable benefits, remains unchanged.

And straying briefly into more dangerous territory, lukewarmers can and do remain highly critical of the IPCC, the hockey stick, the climategate fiasco, the Lewandowsky nonsense, and the bizarre idea that sceptics are a bunch of “fossil fuel funded deniers”. True peace in our time requires mainstream climate science to acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.

Similarly, Benny Peiser responded,

I’m afraid both Matt McGrath and Reiner Grundmann misunderstand the GWPF and our work. They should know better.

Our mission statement and philosophy has been known ever since we launched the GWPF in 2009 and is prominently posted on our website:

* We have developed a distinct set of principles that set us apart from most other stakeholders in the climate debates:
* The GWPF does not have an official or shared view about the science of global warming – although we are of course aware that this issue is not yet settled.
* On climate science, our members and supporters cover a broad range of different views, from the IPCC position through agnosticism to outright scepticism.

As a matter of fact, we don’t even have a collective view on the excellent new report by Nic Lewis and Marcel Crok.

We are promoting an open debate, our opponents are trying to close it down.

And reiterated the point later:

GWPF members have different views on most subject matters. The only issue we all agree upon: that there is a manifest lack of an open, frank and critical climate debate.

To encourage open discussion and critical assessment is the main raison d’être of our work and existence.

Which was denied by Grundmann:

You are trying to paint the GWPF as a group without clear direction as every member has different views. I think this is misleading. The GWPF occupies a well defined space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse.

I took the issue up with Grundmann, who tweeted, “Has the GWPF become lukewarm?”

I asked, “You say GWPF may have ‘become’ something. What was it before? Perhaps it is only prejudices that have changed.”

Grundmann didn’t want to dwell on the question. But I think it is the most interesting question in the entire debate. Grundmann claims that the GWPF can be easily defined. But it would seem he has much trouble defining it, to the point that he couldn’t answer a question about its putative transformation, reflected in the publication of Lewis and Crok.

As is discussed here often, the most powerful misconception of the climate debate is that is divides on the proposition ‘climate change is happening’. This is presented as a scientific claim, though when one tries to understand what it means, and what its consequences are, unpacking it reveals that it means precisely nothing, and the consequences might mean anything between a trivial change in the weather, through to the collapse of civilisation and the end of all life on Earth. This ambiguity turns nuanced arguments and analyses into cartoons, and would seem to put Lewis and Crok opposite the GWPF, who have published broad criticism of climate policy and also of some particular scientific questions. Worse, this tendency allows politics or ‘ideology’ to be presented as ‘science’, and so to preclude debate. All Ed Davey has to do, for instance, to wave away criticism of his energy policy is claim that it is the expression of denial of climate science. Grundmann’s thinking is no more sophisticated.

Yet Grundmann’s academic profile claims that his interests are,

Sociotechnical Systems, Social Philosophy, Power (social), Political Science, Economic Sociology, Political Sociology, Pure Sociology, Social Theory, Comparative Politics, Climate Change, Sustainable Transportation, Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Global Environmental Governance, Science and technology studies, and Environmental Sustainability

How do political sociologists develop such blind spots in the climate debate, such that publishing a “lukewarm” report means a tiny organisation with few resources has radically altered its presumed position? The presumption is the key. If the GWPF had stated a position on the necessity of political action with respect to the magnitude of climate sensitivity prior to Lewis and Crok, Grundmann would be right to demand some revision of it, or remain ‘IPCC-bashers’. But I’m fairly sure that what concerns the GWPF’s members is the same as what has concerned this blog over the last seven years:

1. That climate’s sensitivity to CO2 is not equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate.
2. That political and scientific arguments are routinely confused.
3. That scientific expertise is used to prevent political debate about important questions.
4. That institutional science has allowed itself to be colonised by political agendas.

This blog has never taken a particular view on climate science. The criticism here is of environmentalism, broadly defined as a political phenomenon, in which the above problems (1-4) are epitomised. Yet it finds itself categorised as a blog for ‘scepticism’ or ‘denial’. This is all anyone seems to need to know.

The blind spot is a phenomenon that political sociologists ought to be conscious of, and to make an object of their study. I pointed out the problem to Grundmann on twitter, passing him a link to a new study coming out of the Tyndall Centre:

What is climate change scepticism? Examination of the concept using a mixed methods study of the UK public
Capstick, S., and N. Pidgeon

The holding of doubts about climate change is often referred to as ‘scepticism’. However, there has been a lack of clarity in previous work as to what exactly this scepticism comprises. We integrate data obtained from discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, to interrogate and refine the concept of climate change scepticism with respect to the views of members of the public. We argue that two main types should be distinguished: epistemic scepticism, relating to doubts about the status of climate change as a scientific and physical phenomenon; and response scepticism, relating to doubts about the efficacy of action taken to address climate change. Whilst each type is independently associated by people themselves with climate change scepticism, we find that the latter is more strongly associated with a lack of concern about climate change. As such, additional effort should be directed towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change. © 2013 The Authors.

What is much more interesting to this “climate sceptic” than any claims about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’ is the implication of Capstic and Pidgeon’s abstract, that it is their role, as academics, to direct ‘additional effort … towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change’.

Imagine, for example, that researchers at a school of psychology at a university had authored a paper that aimed to understand why people voted for a particular mainstream political party, which then suggested ways that interventions might be made to encourage them to vote for another. NB, I am not suggesting here that researchers should not be allowed to have such biases, or even that the academy should not be a place where people are able to develop persuasive political ideas — on the contrary. But there is something weird about this form of ‘research’ which aims to change the dynamics of debates about public policy in this way.

Capstic and Pidgeon’s paper, like many investigations into climate scepticism — Lewandowsky’s, for instance — makes it an object of study rather than the ground of a debate. In table two, for example, they identify a list of 20 expressions of scepticism:

* There is too much conflicting evidence about climate change to know whether it is actually happening
* Current climate change is part of a pattern that has been going on for millions of years
* Climate change is just a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperatures
* Even if we do experience some consequences from climate change, we will be able to cope with them
* The effects of climate change are likely to be catastrophic
* The evidence for climate change is unreliable
* There are a lot of very different theories about climate change<comma> and little agreement about which is right
* Scientists have in the past changed their results to make climate change appear worse than it is
* Scientists have hidden research that shows climate change is not serious
* Climate change is a scam
* Social/behavioural scepticism measures
* Climate change is so complicated, that there is very little politicians can do about it
* There is no point in me doing anything about climate change because no-one else is
* The actions of a single person doesn’t make any difference in tackling climate change
* People are too selfish to do anything about climate change
* Not much will be done about climate change, because it is not in human nature to respond to problems that won’t happen for many years
* It is already too late to do anything about climate change
* The media is often too alarmist about climate change
* Environmentalists do their best to emphasise the worst possible effects of climate change
* Climate change has now become a bit of an outdated issue
* Whether it is important or not, on a day-to-day basis I am bored of hearing about climate change

There’s plenty of material coming out of Cardiff to occupy political sociologists. But they seem more interested in the putative transformation in the GWPF than in reflecting critically on the new role of academics, and the diminished understanding of the public.Rather than positions to be argued with, the entries on this table are taken as merely arbitrary expressions of some kind of irrational motivation. But the consequence of this is that, far from developing an understanding of ‘what scepticism is’, the researchers only engage with their own prejudices. There is no dialogue. They aim to sample scepticism, by analysing sceptics (which ones?) comments, but only end up sampling their own heads, rather than testing the categories and ideas they have developed. Thus, Capstic and Pidegon tell us more about themselves than about sceptics.

Grundmann, Capstic, Pidgeon, Lewandowsky, The SMC, McGrath, and Ward, although their tones and their general approaches to the climate debate differ, cannot help but merely reproduce their own ignorance of their subjects. The GWPF’s position is a mystery to them. So when it becomes obvious that there is lukewarmism amongst the GWPF fold, the coordinates on which that ignorance rested are disturbed. Rather than seeing the ignorance as the cause of that disturbance, it appears as a radical shift in the position of the GWPF. In the same way, a dizzy person sees the world spinning. If sceptics were taken more seriously, if there was a debate… if there was a political, or academic culture which accepted debate… Cardiff wouldn’t produce such rank pseudo-science, and social scientists in Nottingham could be more confident about the definition of ‘space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse’, but probably would chose his words — and his coordinates — more carefully.

What space?

What ecosystem?

What discourse?

What bullshit!

Lewandowsky Nails his Faeces to the Door

Posted by Ben Pile on February 21, 2014
Feb 212014

Over at Lewandowsky’s lair, Shaping Tomorrow’s World, the academic-psychologist-turned-propagandist has set out his values…

Part of my research is considered controversial by some people because I examine why individuals choose to reject well-established scientific findings, such as the fact that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a bad opening shot from the professor. Lewandowsky does not ‘examine why individuals choose to reject well-established scientific findings’. Few that Lewandowsky has claimed ‘reject’ the claim that ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’ in fact reject the claim at all. Lewandowsky’s research invariably depends on the idea that any criticism of any aspect of climate change, from science through to policy, is a rejection of the claim. But this is misleading. Moreover, and has been observed here many times, the claims that ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’, is not scientific. It lacks any precision. It can mean anything from an inconsequential amount of warming, through to changes that will bring about the end of civilisation. Lewandowsky’s propagandising has to omit any sense of proportion, because admitting that climate change is not just a matter of degree, but matters of degree on matters of degree precludes the possibility of making polarising statements and moralistic claims, which are his intentions.

I believe that science has served us well during the last century or so. For example, the number of lives that were saved through research into HIV/AIDS is staggering—a fact tragically highlighted by the unnecessary death toll in South Africa when the government of then-President Mbeki rejected scientific medicine and preferred to treat AIDS with beetroot and garlic.

And here we already see the problem emerge. What role can psychology play, in trying to understand why Mbeki would make such a statement? I don’t believe it can shed any light on it at all. And Lewandowsky sheds not one single photon on this, or any other question he seems to have tasked himself with. What does Lewandowsky know about Mbeki, and the complex politics and history of South Africa? For that matter, what does Lewadowsky know about climate change sceptics? He won’t respond to their criticisms, and it is evident from his work that he doesn’t even read them. His refusal to understand the debate he comments on even leads him to put mainstream climate scientists into the same category as ‘deniers’.

Nonetheless, science takes place in a social context and is not value neutral. For example, I do not share the values of the late Dr. Edward Teller, an advocate of using nuclear devices to build harbours in Alaska (among other things), who possibly inspired the movie character Dr. Strangelove.

Congratulations to Lewandowsky for recognising the fact that ‘science takes place in a social context’. Might climate sceptics, and Mbeki not also exist in a social context? And might climate science, which is, after all, a very soft science, also exist in a social context?

He doesn’t say. But what are Lewandowsky’s ‘values’?

I value freedom of speech. In most instances, “bad” speech should be countered by good or better speech rather than being suppressed. It is for this reason that I have not taken action, thus far, against the clearly defamatory content of various internet blogs.

‘Thus far’, sounds like a threat. But it is as empty as his claim that ‘”bad” speech should be countered by good or better speech rather than being suppressed’. Lewandowsky has not responded to criticism of his work, and refuses to.

His second ‘value’ is:

I value academic freedom. This entails the freedom to publish research that some people find controversial or inconvenient. It is the responsibility of scientists to be rigorous in publishing and attempt to eliminate all errors and identify weaknesses in their work. Where these persist in published articles, it is the job of peer-review to correct those via published rejoinders.

Academic freedom is not damaged in any way by members of the public calling ‘bullshit’ on Lewandowsky’s claims. Academic freedom does not suffer when members of the public can see the work better than the peer-reviewers and the editors of a journal. And academic freedom is not undermined when people suggest that the paper be retracted. It is the point of peer review that poorly conceived and poorly executed research should not make it to publication.

Lewandowsky is complaining here about the attempts to obtain the raw data from his research, and about the questions raised about his method in recent papers. These problems have not been answered by Lewandowsky, nor by his publishers. Yet they are aware of the problems with his research. They have been told, but have ignored the criticism.

Lewandowsky’s statement of his ‘values’, then, amount to nothing more than an excuse.

Science is debate, and I have been participating in this debate for 30 years. I therefore welcome any critique of my work that survives peer review or is cogent in other ways or addressed through proper channels.

Here, Lewandowsky says that the only legitimate way of challenging his work is publishing criticism in academic journals, or some other ‘proper channel’ not explained. It is as if criticism of the claim that 2+2=5 could only come from another journal, not by anybody with a rudimentary grasp of arithmetic.

Lewandowsky wants to influence the public debate, both with his research and in his blog posts and other non-academic articles. Yet he then wants to hide behind the walls of the Academy when any of that work is criticised.

Because I value freedom of speech and academic freedom, I oppose and resist the bullying and intimidation employed by some opponents who refuse to engage in scientific debate by avoiding peer review. My thoughts and experiences are summarized in an article on the Subterranean War on Science.

Lewandowsky is not in a position to complain about bullying and intimidation. Many of Lewandowsky’s able critics do not have access to journals, nor to the academic resources usually necessary to publish in them, and much less the time. Lewandowsky’s argument is that only academics may criticise him — that the masses outside the academy have no legitimate argument to make. That is bullying in its simplest form, made worse by the fact that it is these individuals that Lewandowsky has made objects of his ‘research’. When they complain, he says ‘you’re not an academic, **** off’. The philosopher king holds himself in high esteem.

Inspired by some philosophers of ethics, I consider the rejection of climate science to be at least morally negligent and sometimes actively immoral. There is a crucial distinction between skepticism, which expresses itself in the peer-reviewed literature, and active rejection of scientific facts, which expresses itself in other fora and which does not seek peer review. People are entitled to question everything in good faith, but I do not believe they are entitled to spread disinformation or intentionally mislead the public. Opinions have ethical consequences.

‘Opinions’ having ‘ethical consequences’, only the privileged may possess them. Rank elitism hides behind scientific objectivity. It can’t be the case, on Lewandowsky’s view, that people who criticise him or the courses of action he wants to advance, do so in good faith, because they have a different understanding of The Science.

But as we have already seen, Lewandowsky does not have a sufficient grasp of climate science, or counter-positions to mainstream climate science, to say that others have an inadequate grasp. Hence, he has to reduce the scientific consensus to something meaningless — like ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’ — which is not even a contested claim.

Lewandowsky’s argument is not ‘ethics’, but is on the contrary, the total absence of ethics. ‘Science’ is a fig leaf.

I therefore perceive a moral obligation to conduct research into why people reject well-established scientific facts, be it climate change or the utility of vaccinations. This is my personal conviction, which other scholars are free to share or disagree with. To illustrate my position, Dr. Lawrence Torcello, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology, put it succinctly: “… Some issues are of such ethical magnitude that being on the correct side of history becomes a cipher of moral character for generations to come. Global warming is such an issue. History inevitably recognizes the moral astuteness of those loudly intolerant of ignorance and corruption. Those who offer polite hospitality to injustice must learn from history that they are complicit to the harms they enable.‎”

Only scholars are free to take issue with Lewandowsky, of course. Trying to find out why people do take a different view on all kinds of things, including science, is a worthwhile end. But that is not what Lewandowsky does. Instead, his work attempts to belittle people who take a different view to him, to say they are mad, or ‘conspiracy theorists’, without a full set of faculties, or are contaminated by ‘motivated reasoning’.

That is the opposite of finding out what people disagree about things. It’s just shouting at people who do disagree, albeit from the high walls of the academy.

If Lewandowsky was genuinely interested in why people take a different view on climate change, he wouldn’t attempt to understand them through bullshit and easily manipulated surveys on the internet, on sites hosted by his colleagues and comrades. He would instead ask them: ‘here’s what I think, why do you disagree?’

It’s called debate. Through he course of debate, the points of disagreement are discovered. That is the point of debate. There is no need for psychologists here.

In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed: I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature and that the public be put in a position where it can make an informed judgment about the voices that are opposing mainstream science on crucial issues ranging from climate change to vaccination.

Let us see more closely what Lewandowsky has said:

1) “In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed…”

And then…

2) “I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature…”

… and…

3) “and that the public be put in a position…”

curtail
kəːˈteɪl
verb
verb: curtail; 3rd person present: curtails; past tense: curtailed; past participle: curtailed; gerund or present participle: curtailing
1.
reduce in extent or quantity; impose a restriction on.
“civil liberties were further curtailed”

Arguments 2 and 3 are explicitly for a curtailing of debate absolutely, viz. the debate should only be between the anointed, and that a passive public only be exposed to its outcome- NOT allowed to take part in it.

All that remains to be said about Lewandowsky is that, if he isn’t liar, he is master of self-deception.

Either way, it is bad faith that motivates his ‘reasoning’.

The video of the debate at last year’s Battle of Ideas festival on the question “What is new environmentalism?” is online.

I’m not sure that between Mark Lynas, Joe Smith, and Casper Hewitt and me, we got to an answer. But some interesting things were discussed on the way. I had a good chat with Joe afterwards over a couple of beers. However, I sense that neither he nor Mark still have any idea about why people might object to environmentalism in a broader sense, or might be critical of the claims made about climate change. This is odd, because Lynas is a fairly able critic of old environmentalism, especially the attitude to GMOs and to nuclear power. And Joe Smith, at least seems to understand that the climate debate is about more than climate science.

Kudos to them, however, for agreeing to the challenge of debate with people of a different perspective, unlike their erstwhile comrades in the dinosaur environmental movement, like this mad woman.

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