Monthly Archives: May 2007

Anyone doubting that environmentalists’ doomsday visions of the future owe more to religion than science should know that Greenpeace are building an ark on Mount Ararat. No, really.

Sir Harry Kroto laments the fall in applications to science degrees at UK universities. “Without first-class science graduates, how will we understand and deal with the crises caused by global warming?”

The facts that a) we use in one year an amount of fossil fuel that took a million years to accumulate, b) we may be on the verge of a climate change catastrophe of global proportions and c) powerful technologies may soon fall into the hands of disturbed individuals with minds riven with those twin cancers of nationalism and religious fanaticism, seem to concern the scientific community a lot more than they do politicians or the media. As my Sussex colleague, the Nobel laureate Sir John Cornforth, has written: “If you are a scientist, you realise before long that if the world is in anyone’s hands, it is in yours.” 

Kroto extravagates. That’s BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh’s word. And he didn’t make it up either.*

Ghosh is writing about concerns expressed by Professor Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre that scientists and the media are prone to exaggerate and dramatise matters of global warming.

He says extravagated claims simply generate a feeling of helplessness in the public. 

Good word. Extravagant, exaggerated, vague. And it is refreshing to hear a high-profile climate scientist complain about it.

“There has been over-claiming or exaggeration, or at the very least casual use of language by scientists, some of whom are quite prominent,” Professor Hulme told BBC News [...] “My argument is about the dangers of science over-claiming its knowledge about the future and in particular presenting tentative predictions about climate change using words of ‘disaster’, ‘apocalypse’ and ‘catastrophe’,” he said. 

But Hulme’s reason for disapproving of scientific extravagation is disappointing. It’s not that society needs the best information available to make difficult decisions about its future, or that scientists should not be confusing scientific knowledge with science fiction, or that we need to be able to distinguish science from politics. He is worried that extravagation is politically counter-productive:

“What we are concerned about, and some of our research has shown, is if those dangers are presented in too catastrophic a way, on too large a scale, then people just distance themselves and are less likely to take actions to reduce their own carbon emissions. That’s our concern.” 

One is left wondering whether Hulme wouldn’t object to making stuff up, just as long as it got people to act on the message.

Meanwhile, the Tyndall research he refers to reads like another attempt (albeit more sophisticated and politically-correct than likening people to rats) to explain in psychological terms why individuals aren’t acting on climate change.

Kroto wonders why students are being put off science. He blames lots of things – the government, universities, religion – but perhaps the culprit is closer to home and perhaps part of the problem is that leading scientists are bent on creating the sort of bleak and biblical statements that Kroto himself comes out with. Science once promised a better future. Now it hopes for a less terrible one. It creates extravagated visions of a Hell on Earth we need to be saved from. That doesn’t turn scientists into heroes. It just turns humans into sinners.

*Extravagate v.i. 1. Stray from a right course, a text, into error, etc. 2. Wander at large; roam at will. 3. Exceed what is proper or reasonable.

Josie Appleton has written an excellent review of Mark Lynas’ book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

Appleton takes issue with many of Lynas’ claims and dismal prophecies, and lucidly argues that catastrophic narratives offered by environmentalists may owe more to anxieties about wider problems in society than scientific observations.

As a non-climatologist, it seems logical to me that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming in some form – but if global warming meltdown starts in eight years’ time, I will eat my copy of Six Degrees, appendices and all. That is a conviction founded not on an analysis of Geophysical Research Letters, but on a consideration of the circumstances in which such science is produced.

Eight years is not a long time in geology. But it is a long time in environmental politics. Just six years ago, Mark Lynas wasn’t saving the planet by writing books, but by throwing custard pies at Bjorn Lomborg, who dared to challenge claims made by environmentalists.

I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face [...] in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.

Although Lynas seems to have moved on from such childish prose and circus antics, he still claims to speak on behalf of the world’s poor (who are lumped in with the animals). But as we have pointed out before, Lynas’s solidarity only extends so far – their struggles are of less importance than balancing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Appleton describes this degraded moral framework well, and suggests that environmentalism can only understand human society in terms of atmospheric science. ‘Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning’. This offers us an important insight into how the environmental movement depends on urgency and disaster to make its moral argument.

Nullius in Verba, the motto of the prestigious Royal Society in London, is usually translated as ‘on the word of no one’. When it was coined back in 1663, it was intended to distance science from the methods of the ancient universities, which relied heavily on the personal authority of the scholars. ‘On the word of no one’ highlighted the independent authority that empirical evidence bestowed on science; knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

Lately, however, the Royal Society has dropped any mention of ‘on the word of no one’ from its website. Instead, it talks of the need to ‘verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment’. Lord May of Oxford, erstwhile president of the Royal Society and former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, offers us a whole new translation: ‘respect the facts.’ This provides the title of his recent review in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), in which he gave the scientific nod of approval to seven recent publications on climate change, including books by George Monbiot, Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern (1).

The Royal Society’s ‘motto-morphosis’ – where it has gone from saying ‘on the word of no one’ to demanding that we ‘respect the facts’ – points to an important shift in the way that scientific authority is used to close down debate these days.

Science has earned its stripes over the past four centuries. It has proved the best method we have for understanding the material universe and has transformed our lives for the better. We now have chief scientific advisers to the UK government and scientists in the House of Lords. But science has correspondingly become more entwined with the political process, and custodians of the scientific facts need to be especially careful how they wield them.

In his TLS review, May exemplifies some of the problems of dealing in a currency of facts. He quotes Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to demonstrate that global warming will devastate species diversity: ‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming.’ That’s not a fact. It’s not even an accurate quote. Stern actually wrote: ‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15–40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming.’ (Our italics.) Stern’s claim was a worst-case scenario based on a single study, not a fact.

Unrepresentative evidence has morphed into scientific fact by a process that owes more to Chinese whispers than scientific rigour. Moreover, a scientist should be scrutinising the facts of the Stern report, not deferring to them. May’s assertion that ‘CO2 is, of course, the principal “greenhouse gas” in the atmosphere’ is just as questionable, given that water vapour has far more influence on the global greenhouse, and other gases such as methane are more potent, measure for measure.

In spite of his own errors, May is deeply suspicious of any attempt to subject claims about the future of the world’s climate to scientific scrutiny, and he steps further outside the realm of material fact to speculate that those guilty of not respecting the facts belong to an ‘active and well-funded “denial lobby”’ that is ‘misinforming the public about the science of climate change’.

The Royal Society also makes much of the motivations of so-called ‘deniers’. In an open letter to ExxonMobil written last year by Bob Ward (then head of communications at the Royal Society), it complained that the company was paying scientists to misinform the public. And yet, as the New Labour government knows only too well, one must be whiter than white oneself for accusations of political sleaze not to come back to haunt you. In his current role as director at Risk Management Solutions (’the world’s leading provider of products and services for the quantification and management of catastrophe risks’ for the insurance industry), Bob Ward still writes letters to ‘deniers’ on behalf of scientists – most recently to Martin Durkin, producer of The Great Global Warming Swindle (2). Anyone wishing to counter Ward’s accusations of embarrassing conflicts of interests need only point out that fear is to risk insurance what oil is to Exxon.

More embarrassing for the Royal Society, however, is that, given its need to offer political opinions, the political vision it has to offer is so bleak. Its current president, Sir Martin Rees, in his book Our Final Century, gives odds of just 50/50 that the human race will survive the twenty-first century. That is not based on any computer model. We can’t predict the climate, let alone the course of human history, yet. This is not science, but Hollywood-esque fantasy politics, written by someone whose anxieties about the future and best guesses are no better informed than our own. What are the facts that the Royal Society requests that we respect exactly?

While Rees and May lend flimsy scientific credence to the urgency of alarmist politics, what the Royal Society should be doing is injecting debates about the state of the planet with some scientific clarity and caution. Like any political body, the Royal Society would no doubt prefer that policymakers and the public take the word of no one but itself. But if it really wants our trust, it will take more than a new motto. It could start by refraining from making political statements while selling itself as the custodian of scientific fact.

And let’s face it; it would be handy to be able to trust the Royal Society on matters of experimental evidence. Because the alternative is that we all have to go out and do all the experiments ourselves.

(1) Respect the facts by Robert May, Times Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007

(2) See What next, a Committee on Un-Scientific Activities? by Brendan O’Neill

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

However, according to its website, the Royal Society seems now to prefer a different translation, one that is echoed in the title of “Respect the facts” (April 6), a review of seven recent publications on climate change, by Robert May, erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government. Facts are certainly worth respecting. However, there are facts, and there are “facts”, and many of the facts that May asks us to respect are, in fact, “facts”. May writes that “CO2 is, of course, the principal ‘greenhouse gas’ in the atmosphere”. That is wrong whichever way you look at it: water vapour has far more influence on the global greenhouse, and other gases – methane, for example – are more potent, measure for measure.

May quotes Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to demonstrate the devastating effects that global warming will have on species diversity (should Stern not be citing May on such matters?): “‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming”’. Not only does he quote Stern inaccurately (“Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15–40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming”), but the statement is a worst-case scenario based on a single study.

May is asking us to respect factoids and unrepresentative evidence dressed up as fact, yet he assures us that it is the oil companies that are “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”.

As for why the Royal Society should now prefer “respect the facts” to “on the word of no one”, perhaps, like any political organization, it would rather we trust the word of no one but itself.

This post doesn’t deserve a title as good as that. And it’s not even a very good title. Where does carbon come into it? Maybe we’re just hungry.

Apologies. We have each been otherwise engaged to the extent that we don’t appear to have posted very much. And even now, all we have time for is an amusing pasta-related introduction to Steve McIntyre’s Swindle and the IPCC TAR Spaghetti Graph at Climate Audit. Except we can’t think of one.

“If a practising scientist selected a 1987 data set over more recent versions, failed to cite it correctly, altered the appearance of the data without a clear explanation and didn’t include the data from the last 20 years then I think we’d all be asking serious questions about their professionalism.”

This was, of course, put forward in the context of Swindle, but surely IPCC is a bigger fish to fry. Let’s apply these principles to IPCC…

And he does. Compare and contrast and enjoy.

And it would be rude not to mention that we have a piece in spiked about Nullius in Verba: The Royal Society’s ‘motto-morphosis’

We have a letter in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Bob May’s translation of Nullius in Verba. It’s not much different from our original post on the subject, except all the commas are in exactly the right place.

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

However, according to its website, the Royal Society seems now to prefer a different translation, one that is echoed in the title of “Respect the facts” (April 6), a review of seven recent publications on climate change, by Robert May, erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government. Facts are certainly worth respecting. However, there are facts, and there are “facts”, and many of the facts that May asks us to respect are, in fact, “facts”. May writes that “CO2 is, of course, the principal ‘greenhouse gas’ in the atmosphere”. That is wrong whichever way you look at it: water vapour has far more influence on the global greenhouse, and other gases – methane, for example – are more potent, measure for measure.

May quotes Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to demonstrate the devastating effects that global warming will have on species diversity (should Stern not be citing May on such matters?): “‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming”’. Not only does he quote Stern inaccurately (“Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15–40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming”), but the statement is a worst-case scenario based on a single study.

May is asking us to respect factoids and unrepresentative evidence dressed up as fact, yet he assures us that it is the oil companies that are “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”.

As for why the Royal Society should now prefer “respect the facts” to “on the word of no one”, perhaps, like any political organization, it would rather we trust the word of no one but itself.

Crisis politics expresses itself most visibly in any debate about children. Children are such a problem for the government that on top of countless other ‘initiatives’ devised to make sure they are obedient, don’t get fat, don’t have sex, dont do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t smash stuff up (and all of the other things most children never do) is a new scheme to terrify them about the future. Or bore them rigid.

A resource pack to help teachers and pupils explore and understand the issues surrounding climate change was sent to every secondary school in England today…The pack, which includes the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth and a number of other resources, was developed by Defra and the Department for Education and Skills. It is accompanied by online teaching guidance showing how to use the resources in the pack in science, geography and citizenship lessons.

‘Citizenship lessons’ are a recent invention by the UK government to get young people to engage with society, rather than become ‘antisocial’. This kind of social orientation reveals the lack of confidence the government has in the children themselves, their parents, the naturally socialising effect of school, and the initiative and goodwill of teachers, and undermines them each accordingly. Consequently, education is less about teaching stuff – equipping children with the tools that enable them to make up their own minds – and more about creating ‘model’ citizens (and, importantly, the role of government becomes more parental). Now, it seems, the risks of children not thinking what the government wants them to think are simply too great (it could mean the end of life on earth), and it hopes to educate away problems facing society.

Anyway, some significant scientific controversies in Gore’s film, and the film’s political message have angered one parent sufficiently that he is now seeking a judicial review of the project, hoping to get an injunction to stop it.

We at Climate Resistance are uncomfortable about the use of the legal system in this way, for the same reason we think Bob Ward’s letter to Ofcom is wrong. Legal mechanisms are no substitute for democracy. But on the other hand, what else is Stuart Dimmock, the father who hopes the case will go to court, to do? There is no political challenge to environmentalism, which is fast becoming a state religion.

The BBC reported Schools Minister Jim Knight as saying, ‘Climate change is one of the most important challenges facing our planet today [...] This pack will help to give young people information and inspiration to understand and debate the issues around climate change, and how they as individuals and members of a community should respond to it.’

The government is seeking to engineer how people and communities perceive the world, respond to it, and what kind of fears should preoccupy them. This is thoroughly illiberal. So illiberal, in fact, that to justify that it is acting in our interests, the government needs something big – something like the imminent end of the world as we know it. As we have pointed out before, environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics. Putting a stop to that will take more than a challenge from the High Court. The crisis is not in the atmosphere, nor in the fragile minds of feral children, it is in Westminster.

According to a new theory, people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

Many people know about the dangers of global warming, but only few act… On the one hand, human beings get stubbornly comfortable in their habits. On the other, the human species is biologically programmed to act in its own best interests – and its members aren’t very different from common rats on that point.

But this ‘explanation’ for our behaviour, put forward by German psychologist Andreas Ernst, says more about environmentalism than it does humans.

An additional, crucial key to changing behaviour across society, however, is committed political engagement, said Ernst. The European Union could for example “turn the screws” incrementally to increase energy prices and reduce emission tolerance levels, he said. … the human tragedy and economic losses that resulted from Kyrill, the cyclone that formed over Newfoundland and blasted damage and death across Europe in January, and Hurricane Katrina, which levelled New Orleans in 2005, could help raise human consciousness about the huge problems of climate change, Ernst noted.

Ernst’s is a very degraded sense of engagement. It is one in which the public is treated like an animal, disciplined and coerced by tragedy and punishment. It is not one that encourages an understanding of individuals as agents of their own future. People are not asked to commit to a vision of a better society, but forced to behave by the spectre of its collapse due to natural disaster. The choice on offer is not between different ideas about a better future, but between a nightmare future and survival – exactly the same future rats have. In spite of his appeal for political engagement, Ernst undermines fundamental principles of democracy, the process through which consent is tested and achieved by negotiation, debate, and active political engagement. His understanding of politics owes more to Pavlov than to, say, JS Mill. Ernst cannot be wrong any more than the dogs knew better than Pavlov when it should be supper time. It is the minds of the masses that have the shortcomings. This is deep arrogance, not scientific investigation. Any tinpot political theory can justify itself in this way.

In fact, it is true that reducing carbon emissions blamed for global warming depends on changing behaviour across society, but even that conviction seems to be missing, Seidl said. “Most people still don’t have confidence in the ability of collective action to bring about change,” he said.

Ernst and his colleagues have identified that people are disengaged from politics – which is certainly true. But they ought to see environmentalism as a symptom of that phenomenon, not as some way out of it. The alarmist appeals to urgency and the anti-humanism of this movement reflect the poverty of ideas in the political sphere; they are typical of the way in which political leaders justify themselves today. Environmentalism, which appears radical and alternative because it shares some history with the left is in fact no different to the mainstream in this respect. What Ernst and his colleagues don’t seem to have considered is the possibility that people have understood environmentalism, yet, as they have with many other political movements, simply not been moved precisely because it treats them in this way. The widespread public cynicism about politics is more than matched by politicians’ cynicism of, no, contempt for the public, and nowhere is that more true than in the environmental movement. Nobody can argue that the environmental message hasn’t been given enough air time.

Yet environmentalists need to create stories about why they haven’t achieved the success they feel their alarmist narratives should entitle them to. This is sometimes achieved by conspiracy theories about industrial capitalists paying scientists and media companies to misinform. In this case, it is achieved by simply saying that people who do not see things in shades of green lack the brains to properly consider their own interests. But both of these arguments depend heavily on reducing humans to animals, and defining the public as a problem needing to be controlled – we’re either too stupid, or too greedy to take a wider view. By redefining the political problems that environmentalism has in persuading people that it knows what their best interests are as a problem of human nature, theories like this can be used to justify acting without consent, and treating the public like naughty children.

Even more unpleasant is the implication that the good people who take environmental threats seriously are less like rats than the rest of us. The idea is that environmentalism doesn’t just offer to protect people from the climate, but also from themselves – or rather, from the swarming masses. When a select few are capable of understanding the complexities of climate science and the remainder have no more cognitive ability than rodents, the role of government is to modify behaviour, and to manage human nature.

If humans are just like rats – interested only in short-term benefits – then so too must be the environmentalists. Indeed, long-term, considered and contested worldviews tend to frighten environmentalism – after all, they stop us responding to short-term environmental alarmism. As Ernst’s colleague Roman Seidl puts it: ‘Families with small children are especially receptive to the message: “Climate change won’t affect us, but our children and grandchildren.”‘ Such emotional weaponry is not the stuff of careful consideration, it is blackmail. He might as well say ‘if you don’t act now, your baby will die, and you will be responsible’. There is nothing sophisticated or hard to grasp about his message. It has not been absorbed is because the public are far better at filtering out shrill nonsense than environmentalists give them credit for, and they know that being treated like rats is not in their interest.

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