The Royal Society’s ‘motto-morphosis’

by | May 17, 2007

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



  1. Climate Resistance » What Next for the Royal Society? - [...] motto in 2007. Nullius in Verba had long been translated as ‘on the word of no one’, but May…
  2. In Whom Do We Trust? » Climate Resistance - [...] motto of the Royal Society, ‘Nullius in verba’, translated as ‘on the word of no-one’, and re-translated by May…

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