Respect the facts

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.

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