Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle is in the news again following an open letter to Wag TV signed by 37 scientists. The Letter, organised by Bob Ward – former Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society, complains about the DVD release of the film.

We believe that the misrepresentation of facts and views, both of which occur in your programme, are so serious that repeat broadcasts of the programme, without amendment, are not in the public interest … In fact, so serious and fundamental are the misrepresentations that the distribution of the DVD of the programme without their removal amounts to nothing more than an exercise in misleading the public. 

This isn’t censorship, Ward argues in the Guardian. ‘Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, which raises the question about what free speech actually is if it is not freedom, amongst other things, to…er…speak – even if it’s not the truth. But if Ward is really against ‘misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, he might set his sights closer to home, on his former boss and co-signature Robert May, for example, who doesn’t appear to be against making factually inaccurate statements either. Ward, May, and others in and around the Royal society are conspicuously silent about mistakes/overstatements/distortions/lies (you decide) made by NGOs, politicians, and indeed their fellow scientists when it doesn’t contradict what seems to be emerging as their own clearly political agenda.

For example, the Guardian reports that,

Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford who signed the letter, said the programme “took a very cavalier attitude to science. There are important issues around climate change that the public should be discussing, but all this programme did was rehash debates that were had and finished in the scientific community 15 years ago.” 

Allen doesn’t tell us which debates he thinks have been ‘had and finished’. But, if the debate is indeed now over, then why would scientists and IPCC contributors still be challenging the scientific consensus and the politics which flows from it? Allen means, of course, that he likes to think that the debate is over but this is simply wishful thinking. The implication is that Allen et al get to decide when the debate is over, not anyone else. This is neither good science, nor good politics. Debate exists where there is a challenge to an idea, not when a select committee decides that it has had enough.

It might be that these scientists and the Royal Society simply don’t recognise their own political agenda. This seems likely given the apparent inability of these scientists-turned-pundits to see the irony of their own words. Take, for example, Allen’s comments in the Guardian:

“What Martin Durkin and Channel 4 don’t understand is the way science works. Science is about the arguments, not the people who make them.” 

Allen makes an argument about ‘Martin Durkin and Channel 4′ as though it was not an argument based on their credibility. Similarly, Robert May suggests that ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘ prevents the truth being heard, and that it ‘shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer’. This does not tally with Allen’s view that science is about the arguments, not the arguers, and neither do the Royal Society’s statements about the debate. For example, in setting out its views on the climate change controversies on its website, the Royal Society tells us that

This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming. 

It goes on to explain that

There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions… Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded… 

The RS does not appear to be doing ‘science’ here at all. It would rather we take its word for it that any challenge to the consensus has no scientific basis, but is politically motivated. This is itself a political argument, not a scientific one. The RS would have us believe that no criticism can be legitimate; the crisis is too urgent. As Martin Rees, the current president of the Royal Society puts it:

Those who promote fringe scientific views but ignore the weight of evidence are playing a dangerous game. They run the risk of diverting attention from what we can do to ensure the world’s population has the best possible future. 

And what kind of ‘best possible future’ does Rees imagine? Well, according to his book, not a very good one. Indeed, Rees can only imagine a future which gives the human race a 50/50 chance of surviving beyond 2100. Political conspiracies… Bond-esque villains plotting the end of civilisation… looming apocalypses… Killer robots… Were Rees not president of the RS, we might expect him to go around in a tin-foil hat.

Perhaps the reason that Rees and his fellow scientists need to make these bleak statements about the future is because of an inability to imagine a role for science without the raison d’etre that crisis provides. This would suggest a limited view of the value of science to society – one reduced to saving the world from a range of nightmares rather than making it a better place. This fantasy gives legitimacy, authority and purpose. It is, therefore, in their interests to defend superficially plausible theories about the end of the world. Indeed this group of scientists (many of them – Rees and May, for example – not climate scientists) have constructed arguments which fall apart when the idea that ‘the debate is over’ is challenged (even if there remains the likelihood that CO2 emissions are influencing the climate) precisely because their argument is about the politics not the science. If the debate is not over, and consequently, there is no crisis then there is no purpose for any of the organisations whose role it is to provide consensus. It is because of this that they need to insist that the debate is over, rather than to encourage it. They ought to be shedding light on the matter, and making sense of the science, not defending a course of action out of the necessity of justifying themselves. This is politics.

May, Rees and the Royal Society in general make much of the vested interests of the so-called ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’, but these are accusations that can be thrown straight back at them. The matter has become so politicised that there are now reputations, jobs, livelihoods, grants, interests, and political positions at stake here. Indeed, the Royal Society is responsible for the distribution of £40 million of public and private funds to scientists. How likely it is that any of those funds get allocated to research that sets out to challenge the IPCC consensus? And given the ferocious statements made by leading RS scientists, how many scientists who might be in a position to develop theories that could challenge ‘the consensus’ might be put off approaching the RS for funding?

But why would Bob Ward, who no longer holds a position at the RS, and who is not a climate scientist, have anything to say about who is right or wrong on matters of climate science? Ward left his job at the RS to take a job as Director of Global Science Networks at risk analysis firm RMS, which serves ‘more than 400 insurers, reinsurers, trading companies, and other financial institutions‘ so that they ‘achieve financial stability while optimizing profitability and growth‘.

Might it be that just as political capital is generated by the urgency of climate change arguments, there are financial interests also? RMS sell their services to their clients who, if persuaded that the confidence intervals given by the IPCC are not quite what they seem, might not be prepared to fork out for insurance premiums. As the RMS website tells us:

Over the last decade catastrophe modeling technology has become a vital tool for quantifying, managing, and transferring risk in the insurance industry … Any company with financial assets exposed to catastrophes can benefit from catastrophe modeling. Insurers, reinsurers, brokers, financial markets, and corporations have all recognized the need to synthesize available scientific research with quantitative techniques to evaluate the probability of financial loss…. Today, RMS provides catastrophe modeling solutions to more companies than any other organization… RMS models are the standard for quantifying catastrophe risk in countries all over the world. RMS offers catastrophe models in over 40 countries, allowing underwriters to confidently price risk and analyze the probability of loss in regions with the highest exposure. 

Just as politicians turn fear of risk into political capital, so too can fear of risk be turned into hard cash – fear of risk is to RMS what oil is to Exxon. Yet if somebody holding a senior position at Exxon were to make similar public statements about taking liberties with scientific fact, they would face a storm of protest. Indeed, Bob Ward might be inclined to write them an open letter

That said, we have no intention of reducing scientific climate debates to squabbles about who funds whom or who has what competing interests. Neither do we wish to defend any mistakes or ‘deliberate distortions’ made by Durkin in his film. But Ward and his colleagues have blundered into the affair in the manner of people aggrieved that their authority has been challenged rather than as scientists with the best available information to hand. They would rather silence dissenters than address their arguments. And the only casualties from that are the reputations of science and scientists.

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