Few ecotastrophists will be disappointed that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has had to be shut down for at least a couple of months to fix a technical problem. Because, for a while there, the Greens’ perpetual thunder about the imminent thermageddon was stolen by newspaper headlines insisting that we couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that fundamental physics would get us first.
Environmentalists have more to be jealous of particle physics than that their end of the world might be nigher than their own, however. Because, despite the best efforts of the press, by the time CERN scientists flicked what is presumably a very big switch indeed, causing the LHC to shudder into life and drive two beams of protons in opposite directions around a 27-km-long circuit at close to the speed of light and at pretty much absolute zero, the remote possibility of the end of the world didn’t figure in our collective imaginations. We were too interested in whether Higgs bosons would turn out to exist or if we would have to re-think our working models of the material universe.
Climate science cannot compete with that sort of thing. Once you strip out the apocalyptic environmental prophesies, it has little to offer the non-specialist. Which is why, if global warmers want more of the action, they have to make even more of their scary scenarios. So, to justify why he thought the £4.4billion spent on the LHC would have been better spent on climate change, Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of books about climate change that have pictures of polar bears on the cover, has little choice but to resort to hyperbole and extravagation:
David King: This money was spent on curiosity-driven research, which may conceivably have some impacts on our well-being in the future. I suspect it won’t. I think we’ve probably driven this type of research far enough that it’s now more navel-searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind […]
Jeremy Paxman: So you say decide upon investment on the basis of what the likely outcome will be – search for a particular outcome like, for example, climate change solutions?
DK: Yes, that is what I’m saying, because I think we’re faced with the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had.
Sir David has rather a quaint view of how science works in practice. Fortunately, Professor Brian Cox (the LHC’s single most important discovery prior to the technical hitch) is seated next to him:
With respect, I think that argument just doesn’t hold water. Because you could have made it at any point in the past. And at every stage of this journey to understand how the Universe works, the spin-off technologies and the knowledge that we’ve gained have proved to be immensely valuable. Nobody is clever enough to predict where the next wonderful discovery is going to come from […] You have to put CERN in its context. This is part of a journey that we’ve been on for about a hundred years to understand the building blocks of matter and what are the forces that stick them together. This journey has given us, for example, the transistor, the silicon chip […] it’s given us the ability to use particle beams to […] potentially kill brain tumours.
But it turns out that Sir David – like most members of the establishment, scientific or otherwise – is less concerned with the way that scientific funds are distributed than he is with the idea that technology – and society – is out of control:
At which point are we going to say ‘this particle accelerator is as big as we want to build’?
To which Cox responds with the only answer possible:
It depends what you discover and where you go next.
The third Big Science du jour is biology. Next year, we celebrate Darwin’s double anniversary (the bi-centenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species). This comes at a time when the scientific world – not to mention the social one – is still trying to get to grips with the implications of the more recent genomics revolution. Combined, natural selection and genomics drive home the extent to which humanity is both part of, and apart from, biology. Biology resonates so deeply because it provides a mechanism for how very complicated things like humans can come about from really simple things like molecules without divine intervention, while at the same time highlighting just how different we are from the apes with which we share so much of our biological recipe. A bonus is that, fingers crossed, genomics might also lead to cures for a bunch of horrible diseases.
But even biology is inclined historically to bouts of physics envy. Indeed, the phrase was coined with biologists in mind. Physicists don’t have to prove their science is hard enough by picking fights. Biologists, however, are inclined to puff up their scientific credentials by belittling the really soft sciences, like psychology. Similarly, physics is man enough to entertain the possibility that it’s got it all arse-about-face. Biology doesn’t talk in terms of ‘working models’. Although neither does it stoop to talk of ‘the consensus’ like climate science does. Biologists might no longer be eugenicists by default, but they would rather not dwell on the fact that they once were.
And biology still feels the need to make promises to justify its worth to society. Just like climate science, only the latter is more desperate. So while biology promises salvation – cures for cancer and degenerative disease – climatology brings us the end of the world, sweetened by the glimmer of a hope of mere survival. As Brian Cox’s Newsnight contribution testifies, physicists don’t promise anything. They don’t have to; they’ve already got our attention.
It is striking that genomics and climatology are both failing to live up to their promises. While global warmers have to resort to rhetorical, proverbial ticking time-bombs and coalmine canaries, the modern genetic sciences must keep assuring us that all those gene- and stem-cell-therapies that were supposed to have cured us by now are even closer to emerging from the end of the pipeline than they were the last time we asked. It’s getting embarrassing. Five years ago, biomedical scientists would have thought nothing of wheeling a multiple sclerosis sufferer on stage at a public lecture or press conference and vowing that we’d have a cure within five years. They can’t get away with that anymore. Neither audiences nor MS sufferers will let them. Not because we don’t recognise the value of the research, but because most of us have by now twigged that science is a messier, less predictable business than the likes of the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science would still like us to think it is. Likewise, we are becoming increasingly immune to the doomsday predictions of environmental scientists. The only difference is that they don’t seem any less inclined to keep making them.
Biology does have a smattering of its own end-of-the-world scenarios: genetic modification, pandemics, and ‘thrifty genes’ that condemn us to obesity in a world of plenty might all lead to our downfall. And biological and environmental prophesies come together in James Lovelock’s likening of the human population to a virus plaguing Gaia; global warming, he says, is just her way of ridding herself of the infection.
Biology and climate change have much in common that neither share with particle physics. Read high-profile scientists and science commentators like Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers or Chris Mooney and you could come away thinking that all good scientists are evolutionists, environmentalists and atheists. Biologists and environmentalists both tend to perceive themselves as somehow under siege from those perpetrating a War on Science. One has its creationists; the other has its climate ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’. And if there are two things that Myers, Mooney and Dawkins don’t like it’s creationists and climate sceptics/deniers.
But it’s a mistake to think that creationists have anything much in common with climate sceptics. Being sceptical of the climate consensus is in a completely different kettle of ball parks to rejecting the evidence for evolution. At Climate Resistance, for instance, we don’t have a problem with evolution. We are quite happy to accept that evolutionary biologists are doing good science. We’d go as far as to say that evolution by natural selection is about as close as is possible to get to a scientific fact. Neither do we have much of a problem with the science of climate or the environment. We won’t grumble if you call it a fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that civilisation is producing quite a lot of it. Our problem is with the way that climate science is deployed politically, and the meanings that are attached to it. A few climate change sceptics do push the line that it’s all just a scientific conspiracy. But as we have argued many times, climate scepticism is a broad church rather than a specific ideology, and most sceptics are more concerned that climate science is being used as a substitute for politics than that it is a willful corruption of the scientific process.
Despite Iain Stewart’s assertion in the final episode of his BBC series Climate Wars that anthropogenic global warming is ‘one of the most rigorously tested theories in the history of science’ (we’ve covered Part Two here), it isn’t. Biologists have been scrutinising and testing evolution intensively for 150 years, compared to the 30 years that anthropogenic global warming has been under the spotlight. Sure, there are gaps in knowledge – eg, the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction, or the origin of self-replicating macro-molecules – but just like gaps in the fossil record, two are created every time you fill one. The gaps in our understanding of global warming are fewer but wider. Moreover, the truth of evolution is not dependent on the future course of human history and politics like the truth of catastrophic climate change is.
Evolution is the fulcrum about which the entire discipline of biology pivots. It is often said that biology makes no sense without evolution. It is biology’s theory of everything. Climate change, on the other hand, is a tapestry of ideas stitched together from climatology, psychiatry, sociology, political science, economics, ethics, physics, biology and chemistry. And it’s used to rewrite history. It is a theory of everything first and a science second.
Not only is evolution more scrutinised and more robust than climate science but it is more detached. Evolutionists are not demanding that society be restructured around the very existence of natural selection. And neither are creationists. They don’t have to believe in evolution to be perfectly happy to use the fruits of evolutionary biology to their own advantage – in agricultural and medical strategies in the arms races with pests and diseases,for example. Creationists just happen not to like the idea that their ancestors are monkeys. Environmentalism, however (and let’s not forget that environmentalism is – as environmentalists keep telling us – based on ‘the science’), asks that we restructure our societies and global economics in the light of climatology. Environmentalists draw on ‘the science’ to prove that Capitalism is flawed. And it is flawed, of course, but not because the thermometers say so. IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri tells us that we should all stop eating meat. Dr Iain Stewart concludes his Climate Wars series with a call for action – ‘the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option’.
But one may make of evolution what one will. Even the Pope says so. And while the vast majority in the UK have no problem with evolution, few sign up to the environmental agenda despite encouragement from all directions. It’s not like anybody voted for it or anything. But then, those evolutionary psychologists are on hand to explain what’s wrong with us and how we might be persuaded otherwise.
Meanwhile, physicists are still looking for their unifying theory. They are more aware of how much we don’t know. Mark Vernon argues that biology is the heartland of militant atheism; physicists, he says, tend to be agnostic.
By way of example, Vernon pitches The God Delusion, by biologist Richard Dawkins, against What We Still Don’t Know, by Sir Martyn Rees (astronomer). Intriguingly, Rees – President of the Royal Society – is not so modest when writing on environmental matters. In Our Final Century? he calculates that humankind has a 50% chance of wiping itself out by 2100. That’s one hell of a model he must be using there to calculate the next century of human history.
Physicists are only too happy to talk about how they don’t know what they’re going to discover tomorrow – or when the LHC goes back on line. Evolutionary biologists are notoriously uncomfortable about speculating on the future course of evolution. So why should we have so much more faith in the predictive abilities of a science that claims to tell us how to run the world for the next hundred years?
All this is not to knock climate change as a field worthy of study. At all. It would be very handy to be able to predict the climate. And the weather. Like transistors, lasers and vaccines have been handy. Like a cure for MS or a fusion energy source would be. And like a Higgs boson or Origin of Species doesn’t need to be, but might well be.
But let’s not forget it is only science. If the hockey stick graph doesn’t capture our imagination like the Higgs boson does, or like they think it should do, it’s not our problem – it’s theirs.
We wish the LHC a speedy recovery. And give the last word to Brian Cox: ‘Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.’