Paul Ehrlich once famously remarked,
Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.
A point noted here often is that although environmentalists claim that their perspective is grounded in science, their desire for social control is palpable. The criticism that many advocates of climate policies make of climate sceptics is that they are driven by their distaste for regulation. Paul Nurse, for example, told an audience in Australia,
A feature of this controversy is that those who deny that there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary if global warming were due to human activity. These actions are likely to include measures such as greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. What seems to be happening is that the concerns of those worried about those types of action have led them to attack the scientific analysis of the majority of climate scientists with scientific arguments that are rather weak and unconvincing, often involving the cherry-picking of data.
Whether or not Paul Nurse is right that ‘climate change is happening’, and that it has consequences for our way of life, he cannot escape the problem that he and his predecessors have sought a greater role for science, and for the Royal Society in public policy. In the foreword to the Royal Society’s brochure for its newly launched Science Policy Centre in 2010, zoologist, Baron John Krebs, said,
Today, scientific advice to underpin policy is more important than ever before. From neuroscience to nanotechnology, food security to climate change, the questions being asked of scientists by policy makers, the media and the public continue to multiply. Many of the issues are global in nature, and require international collaboration, not just amongst policy makers, but also between scientists.
In the run-up to its 350th Anniversary in 2010, the Royal Society has established a Science Policy Centre in order to strengthen the independent voice of science in UK, European and international policy. We want to champion the contribution that science and innovation can make to economic prosperity, quality of life and environmental sustainability, and we also want the Royal Society to be a hub for debate about science, society and public policy.
Krebs is, coincidentally, a member of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change — the panel of allegedly independent experts which decides the future of the UK’s ‘carbon budgets’. Being an expert on birds, he is well placed to set the parameters of UK Energy policy, half a century into the future.
The face-value reading of this ascendency of science in the political sphere is that the world faces a growing number of risks, which can only be understood by individuals with technical expertise. But another explanation of the same phenomenon is that technical expertise is sought because today’s politicians, as managers of public life but lacking the moral authority enjoyed by their predecessors, need them where they previously enjoyed a mandate from the public. The idea of exerts managing the world is an attractive one, but leaves the problem of what it is they are managing it for: what is the agenda, programme, vision? Heaven forfend that experts, like anyone else in positions of power, might be in it for themselves
The problem grows deeper. It is hard to legitimise the elevation of the expert positively. The familiar justification for climate policies — or rather, the construction of political institutions above democratic control — is the doctor analogy. According to this feeble analogy, if you were sick with cancer, you would seek out the best cancer expert you could find to treat you. Thus, the world can only be cured of its ‘cancer’ — climate change — by asking ornithologists how much carbon people in 2040 should be allowed to emit, and by asking genetic biologists like Paul Nurse what is the best form of political organisation. The elevation of experts needs seemingly technical crises: it’s not enough for scientists to discover the means to produce better material conditions for us.
So, about that expertise then…
Skeptical Science’s latest bore-a-thon is the #97Hours project, which is documenting the (literally) cartoonish account of the climate consensus with, erm, cartoons, published every hour… This one caught my eye:
Ken Denman, who studies ‘the interactions between marine planktonic ecosystems, physical oceanographic processes and a changing climate’ has something to say, not just about policy, but the weakness of human will.
The issue is not a lack of scientific evidence, the issue is the unwillingness of people and governments to act. It seems to defy logic. But a lot of addictions defy logic. Our society is completely addicted to cheap power.
‘Our society is addicted to cheap power’, he says, echoing Pauls Ehrlich and Nurse. Leaving aside the fact that Denman’s scietific expertise doesn’t really give him any insight into ‘addiction’, much less the reasons for policy failure, and that this should give us a clue about his understanding of how science should be applied to society, I was also struck by this recent cartoon, published this week, and wondered how it chimes with Ehrlich, Nurse and Deman:
Tackling climate change – with a clear policy that meets the first carbon budgets recommended by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – makes clear economic sense for the UK.
Reducing the UK’s carbon emissions by around 60% by 2030 (as recommended by the CCC) would:
* increase UK GDP by 1.1% in net terms
* result in at least 190,000 additional jobs being created across the UK economy
* mean households are financially better off compared to a scenario where little is done to reduce emissions.
This seems not to tally with Paul Nurse’s contention that climate policies are ‘likely to include measures such as greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth’. Cambridge Econometrics and the WWF claim that making energy more expensive, restricting its use, and spending many billions on ‘efficiency’ in fact makes the economy grow! The full report is here.
It is bullshit, of course.
Our analytical approach is primarily model-based. The starting point is a set of detailed assessments of the cost and abatement potential of the various technologies identified in the CCC’s ‘Fourth Carbon Budget Review’. These are used as inputs to the MDM-E3 macro-econometric model of the UK economy and energy system, which gives an estimate of impacts on key industry sectors and the economy as a whole.
All three scenarios are assessed using MDM-E3, a macro-econometric model that applies economic (national) accounting identities and empirically estimated equations to model interactions between the UK economy, energy system and the environment. MDM-E3 incorporates a bottom-up approach to modelling power generation technologies and uses an input-output framework to model the supply chain effects of changes to industrial output and expenditure.
Models allow modellers to bury their assumptions, and then to hide them further from scrutiny again behind the ‘our intellectual property defence’. Cambridge Econometrics claim to be able to model ‘interactions between the UK economy, energy system and the environment’, but there is no way to test this claim, or any of the counter-intuitive claims produced by this model. It might as well make predictions about the UK’s annual production of horse feathers and unicorn meat.
Of course this ‘modelling’ exercise is intended to support the Committee on Climate Change’s carbon budgets. The UK and EU government-funded WWF have commissioned the report to suit their funders’ needs. But in doing so they have contradicted a mainstay of the environmentalist’s argument, to reveal a contradiction between claims that a reduction in growth is likely and necessary, and that climate policies can in fact produce growth. We can sustain our cake and eat it, says the WWF. In which case, then, why are the carbon budgets necessary? Why would it take far-reaching legislative action to produce the desired result: efficiency and economic growth? These are not things that typically require intervention.
This is not the only contradiction thrown up by experts pouring their knowledge into supercomputers. As discussed in earlier posts, Naomi Klein’s new book, ‘This Changes Everything’ was inspired by the work of ‘complex systems researcher’, Brad Werner, who, Klein claims, fed information about the climate into his model of the world, to determine that it can only survive if we Occupy everything, and overthrow capitalism.
Cambridge Econometric’s result is perhaps more modest. But the phenomenon is the same: researchers, standing by their black boxes, as though the boxes themselves had spontaneously produced the imperatives, without any more effort from the programmer than simply typing into it “what is two plus 2?”. It is this that we should interrogate: why all the black boxes? It doesn’t begin and end with climate models, it’s models of the universe, through to the way we organise our lives, start to finish.
Yet these models, in spite of their proximity to pure, cold, hard, objective facts — the material universe itself — produce contradictions, even when they model something as apparently simple as the climate. When they then encompass the entire environment and our interactions with it, do they get more reliable, such that we can say with confidence ‘capitalism is wrong’, or, conversely, that economic growth without destroying the planet is possible?
Models seem to proceed, using the cold reasoning of pure maths, from unimpeachable knowledge. Yet the imperatives they print out always seem to correspond to their authors’ preferences about how the world should turn. Which ones are correct?
What Is To Be Done about all these models, which seem to be instructing us one moment to march in the street and man (and woman) the barricades, the next to simply be an obedient citizen and buy an electric car and insulate your walls?
Do we need an expert panel, to oversee the imperatives issued by computer models? Or perhaps we could model an expert panel, and get it to issue instructions.
The Guardian has quoted Royal Society President, Paul Nurse’s outburst:
He urged researchers to forge relationships with politicians, lobbyists, religious figures and leaders of organisations in the hope that they might feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence.
But if that approach failed, Nurse urged researchers to call offenders out in the media and challenge them in the strongest way possible. “When they are serial offenders they should be crushed and buried,” Nurse said.
A lot has been written about Paul Nurse and his predecessors on these pages. And there’s even a video. Like many of his fellows in what we could call the ‘climate change establishment’ (also called the ‘Mediocracy’ here), there is a peculiar problem with his rhetoric.
For all his talk of the importance of science and scientific evidence, Paul Nurse never actually takes issue with those he now demands should be ‘crushed and buried’. The problem isn’t as simple as this physician not knowing anything about climate science; Paul Nurse is a moral coward as much as he is an ignoramus.
Strong words, perhaps. But look at his injunction to scientists again:
Nurse urged researchers to call offenders out in the media and challenge them in the strongest way possible.
It is an instruction that he cannot follow himself. He does not ‘call out offenders’, to ‘challenge them’. He merely shouts about them, where he ought to be bringing the putative weight of scientific evidence down on them. Like chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, John Selwyn Gummer, AKA ‘Lord Deben’, Nurse does not:
1. Identify the sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
2. Identify the problems with the arguments made by sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
3. Provide a better argument to counter the arguments made by sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
(Tim Worstall notes that Nurse injunction doesn’t seem to apply to members of the RS.)
Instead, the likes of Nurse (and Gummer) hide behind the ‘scientific consensus’, rather than use the substance of scientific consensus to shed light on debates about the climate.
Regular readers here will know that this is a symptom of what I call a ‘consensus without an object’. It doesn’t matter what your criticism of climate science or climate policy is, to take issue with any claim made in pursuit of climate policy, or about climate science is to ‘deny the consensus’. So Nurse does not have to understand, or to share his understanding of climate science, he just has to shout about ‘denial’, and to attack the character of his counterparts. The consensus without an object allows its bearer to use the authority of science, rather than its explanatory power.
So. Much. For. Science. Then.
Equally confused about what science is, yet seemingly standing for its virtues, Professor Brian Cox this week took a break from producing wide-eyed cosmic-stupor documentary films, to pronounce on climate sceptics. The Guardian — again — reports,
He said scientists could say with total confidence that climate science was uncontroversial and the current predictions for warming were the best advice available.
What does it mean to say ‘climate science is uncontroversial’? A science that had no controversy would be a strange science indeed. Even physics has controversies. Science is not, as the Guardian article seems to have it, a process of gradually assembling a picture of the truth, but proceeds often messily, producing conflicting accounts of phenomena. Without different perspectives to reconcile, science would make no progress; it would either be unnecessary or beyond our abilities.
But the claim that there is no controversy belongs more to the journalist quoting him, Karl Mathiesen, who is a ‘freelance journalist with a background in wildlife conservation’, than it belongs to Cox. On Twitter, and responding to Alice Bell, Cox complained,
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) September 5, 2014
Here is the part of Cox’s preferred account of his talk, in which he discusses climate science:
He also said that scientists need to be more absolute in communicating the likelihood that they are wrong when discussing huge issues such as climate change. “We can sometimes create a false sense of debate that suggests there is a lot of uncertainty, and that sounds dangerous. I almost want to say we should be less scientific, but in a very specific way that says ‘you can’t do better than this’. You can be absolute – you can say that science is absolutely the best evidence we have, and this is absolutely the best advice.”
The problem with Cox’s argument here is that it allows the value of ‘absolutely the best advice’ to be amplified to unassailable truth. He ‘almost wants to say we should be less scientific‘, when presenting the evidence to the public and to politicians.
In a debate as complex as the one about climate change, elevating ‘absolutely the best advice’ precludes nuance. The consequence of the consensus without an object is that the debate is presented as one between ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’, attached to the claims ‘climate change is happening’ and ‘climate change is not happening’ respectively. For Cox to go into any depth about the arguments at play, he would have to admit nuance that upsets that view of the debate. Cox’s willingness to be ‘less scientific’ is the result of a necessary trade-off, in other words, between certainty and precision. The authority of climate science cannot be sustained while being precise, so Cox writes it a sick note. Of the myriad of claims made in the climate debate, Cox thinks it is sufficient to answer even the IPCC’s own statement that ‘Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large’ with the mantra, ‘climate change is happening’, which means precisely nothing.
Cox’s proposal has a number of implications. He openly argues for science to have more sway in public debates and on policy, and this creates its own problem, because, as the climate debate is testament to, institutional science’s priorities are not necessarily shared by the hoi polloi. Cox might answer that the voting public, not possessing scientific knowledge, might not be aware of what their best interests are. However, institutional science, once it becomes a political force or simply posses political power, needs to legitimise itself and the exercise of that power. And there is simply no positive, or progressive way for science to engage itself in the public sphere: it can only ground itself in the language of risk, rather than progress. For example, of the claims ‘science can save your children from death’ and ‘science can give you faster transport’, only one of them carries any political consequences, there being no first-order consequences for political organisation of the promise of faster cars, trains or planes. A reason needs to be found to take political power away from democratic institutions — from the public — and given to scientific institutions. The presupposition of elevating science in policy-making is an increasingly dangerous world, in need of management by experts. Not even the scientific method provides oversight of this form of politics, because the power subsists in scientific institutions, which certainly do not welcome climate sceptics, rather than in the scientific process.
This manufacture of legitimacy is predicated on a particular understanding of risk. It is no surprise that Nurse and Cox’s scripts share much with Nicholas Stern’s writing on the same issues.
Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. There is value in scientists engaging in a deep conversation with policy-makers and others, not merely ‘delivering’ results or analyses and then playing no further role. Communicating the policy relevance of different varieties of uncertainty, including imprecision, ambiguity, intractability and indeterminism, is an important part of this conversation. Uncertainty is handled better when scientists engage with policy-makers.
Stern and Smith go on…
Even when technically coherent, failing to lay the limits of today’s insights in plain view, as with the presentation of ‘temperature anomalies’ in summaries for policy-makers , hinders communication of large systematic model errors in today’s models, and hence the relevant level of ambiguity. The eventual realization that such figures show weaker evidence than originally thought can be blown dangerously out of proportion by the anti-science lobby, making the use of science in support of policy-making more difficult than it need be. Again, greater engagement of scientists in the policy process, openly explaining the insights of today’s science and limitations of today’s models, is a significant benefit. This may prove especially true in situations where decisions are based upon feelings as much as upon numbers.
Climate science’s failures have produced ground, which is now aggressively defended against the sceptics by the physician, the physicist and the economist. And it is worth thinking about how wrong many of the claims made in the debate are.
The Guardian piece, which Cox says badly paraphrases him, for example, attributed to Cox the view that ‘scientists could say with total confidence that climate science was uncontroversial and the current predictions for warming were the best advice available’. If this is accurate, it demonstrates that Cox does not understand that few climate scientists believe that i) model outputs agree or are uncontroversial — the IPCC no longer uses them to produce a ‘best estimate’ of likely warming; ii) that model outputs count as ‘predictions’, rather than ‘projections’, for precisely the fact that climate science is not yet a predictive science; iii) of all the aspects of climate science, models are acknowledged as exactly ‘controversial’, and according to Richard Betts, are not as important to policy-making as is claimed — see discussion at Bishop Hill, here and here, for example.
If the claim is not accurate, meanwhile, it means that Cox’s words were easily mangled. Whereas he was saying that the public are too vulnerable to be exposed to discussions about uncertainty in scientific debates with implications for policy, the Guardian journalist — as is Guardian journalists’ want — read it as a message that there was no uncertainty or controversy in climate science. The point being here that the bigger problem than sceptics descending on uncertainty is in fact the over-statement of certainty by, not just journalists, but also policy makers and scientists. No over-statement of certainty, no ground given to us evil sceptics. But was it not scientists, with their words printed in the Guardian, repeated by policy-makers, which warned of ‘Arctic death spirals'; ‘ice-free Arctic summers'; the proliferation of disease; worsening, intensifying and increasing frequency of storms, flood, drought and fire; dramatic decreases in agricultural productivity in Africa; increased warming between 2009-14; the immanent demise of Himalayan glaciers and the consequent denial of water to over a billion people; The deaths of 150,000 and then 300,000 people in the developing world each year; and so on? Each of those claims was at best, controversial, if not complete bunk. It was those dismissed as ‘sceptics’, variously, who pointed out the problems with these claims and using them as the basis for policy, who subsequently found themselves accused of taking issue with certain science, but who have been vindicated.
Stern, at least, conceded that ‘weaker evidence than originally thought’ gives ground to sceptics, right or wrong. Cox’s answer is to sweep it under the carpet. Nurse’s opinion is to bury and crush the sceptics. Stern says that scientists should be more up front about uncertainty. But none of them recognise alarmism as the dynamic that sceptics respond to. Cox, if not Stern and Nurse, should see his mangled words, and call the Guardian out. Nurse and Stern should be taking issue with environmentalists, policy-makers and scientists who over-egg the climate pudding, but to do so would be to reveal that there are many controversies, that science cannot produce unequivocal advice about the state of the planet much less what to do about it, and that the perspectives offered up by many seemingly scientific researchers are in fact contaminated by environmental ideology.
Science, however… Institutional science, that is… has failed to confront the alarmist tendencies in its own ranks. It has not dampened the claims made by Hansen, Mann, et al. It has been slow to respond to the excesses of bloated departments that have capitalised on governments’ climate priorities — especially climate change psychologists.
In seeking to confront sceptics and reverse their capture of ground conceded to them by the failure of institutional science to regulate its own output, Nurse (and Cox) merely give us more ground. Talk of ‘crushing and burying’ does not confront anti science with real science. And to advocate being ‘less scientific’ when scientists speak to each other in front of mere peasants, lest they start to understand the science, means revealing that the issue is not one of science at all, but of authority.
There is more to this story. In his Twitter Profile, Brian Cox describes himself as,
Ultra-naïve positivist-ish, although science can’t explain the existence of antipositivists
Positivism is the belief that the world can be explained only through the scientific method — that any understanding of it not produced in this way does not count as knowledge. This has the implication that only institutional science has access to the ‘truth’. Hence, his contempt for the public, in spite of his fame as a popular science film maker. Positivism’s aim is not as much on the material world, but on the human world, hence his emphasis on ‘the best available advice’ prevailing in policy-making.
Curiously, given Cox’s emphasis on material science, positivism’s origins are not in the material sciences as such, but in sociology. The founder of sociologie and positivism, Auguste Comte believed in the early 1800s that there could be a ‘social physics’, to explain (and perhaps engineer) the social world — that it functioned according to principles that are as physically-determined as the world observed by classical physicists. Hence Cox’s quip that ‘science can’t explain the existence of antipositivists’. While it may be premature to say that this view is wrong, it was certainly premature then and is now, to say that this view yields any practical insight. Sociological perspectives that proceed from such deterministic premises do more to force people in real life into the narrow understanding of them, by such sociologists, than they shed light on why people function in certain ways. For the time being, at least, the positivist notion of individuals as automata, driven by forces, is a fiction that serves a particular ideological preoccupation.
In other words, Cox is not merely arguing that climate science is the ‘best available advice’. He is simultaneously making a claim about the best way of producing that advice, and how society should be organised to follow that advice. That is what it means to be a ‘naive positivist’. It is an ideological — a political — belief, that says much more about how society should be organised than it says about the way stars form and develop. (Readers may also be interested to see how positivism was criticised by Popper — in particular the emphasis he placed on falsifiability.)
One of the problems of positivism is that it cannot recognise the context of its own perspective — in this case, the emphasis on risk expounded by Stern, and implied by Nurse and Cox. It seems obvious to Stern and Smith that policy making should be about risk management. And it seems obvious to those who would elevate science as a political institution that science’s priorities should be about ‘risk management’ rather than the normal business of science: finding the mechanisms of disease and their cures, understanding the natural world, and improving our productive capacities, and the such like which need no political authority. The question ‘when and why did policy-making become mainly about risk management’ makes no sense to the positivist because any alternative understanding of politics as such cannot be quantified under the framework of their understanding. This is not to say that empirical science was never recruited by politics to identify and ameliorate risk, but that a transformation has occurred, in which risk has become an organising principle, and the scientific academy has been elevated in this process, at the expense of notions of autonomous moral agents — i.e. the public, or demos, with the consequence, of course, of the de-emphasis of democratic forms of governance.
Some of these metaphysical points and their implications for democratic society and for science were raised by Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph.
It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist – who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty – describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good – essential, in fact – for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.
Controversy, said O’Neill, is essential for society and for science. This caused the ire of Bob Ward, who tweeted,
— Bob Ward (@ret_ward) September 5, 2014
Alice Bell then joined in, correcting Ward on his characterisation of O’Neill’s position, but holding her nose.
@ret_ward it is very rare that I say this, but I agree with some of Mr O'Neill's points here (tho I also think it's classic doubt-mongering)
— Alice Bell (@alicebell) September 5, 2014
O’Neill’s Classic doubt-mongering? Or yet more moral and intellectual cowardice from Alice Bell, in the fashion of Paul Nurse?
Cox then distanced himself from the Guardian article, as discussed above, and has today issued a clarification of his statements.
Finally got fed up, so I've written down what I actually think about the communication of uncertainty in science http://t.co/GmRK9xkmtl
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) September 6, 2014
Cox’s new article comes at the end of what has been written above. So apologies for going over some of it again. Cox begins,
The point I made during the discussion at the Society of Biology was as follows. One has to be careful when communicating uncertainty in science, especially in politicized areas such as climate science. The reason is that uncertainty is often misunderstood and occasionally misused by self-styled “on-line magazine editors” or opinion formers “who are always right” – you know the sort.
Cox’s reference to “on-line magazine editors” is a reference to Brendan O’Neill, and ‘opinion formers “who are always right”’ is a reference to James Delingpole. (Delingpole wrote this fun commentary on Cox’s arrogance, which is worth a read). It is telling that Cox cannot bring himself to mention their names, much less address their arguments directly. It is the same moral and intellectual cowardice, again, as Alice Bell’s, and Paul Nurses, John Gummer’s and Nick Stern’s refusal to identify sceptics, identify their arguments, and to take issue with them directly. It is childish, narcissistic, in fact, to be unable to respond to criticism of arguments you have made in the public sphere. Cox’s headline is that ‘Science is “too important not to be part of popular culture”‘… He wants popular culture to modified on his own terms. But if you want to influence the public sphere, it is (or should be) axiomatic that you should take criticism of your ideas in good faith, presupposing that they have been issued in good faith. It is not enough to say that O’Neill and Dellingpole misunderstand or misuse ‘uncertainty'; as we can see the issue around risk speaks to the very heart of the matter: not just what the ‘facts’ of the climate are, but how those facts are produced, the institutions that produce them are privileged in the political sphere and the historical context of that ascendency, and how public institutions and the public relate. He has no right to ‘feel fed up’ that his argument has yielded criticism. Rather than engaging his critics, Cox merely restates his position:
The consensus scientific view is the best we can do at any given time, given the available data and our understanding of it. It is not legitimate and certainly of no scientific value (although there may be political value) to attack a prediction because you don’t like the consequences, or you don’t like the sort of people who are happy with the prediction, or you don’t like the people who made the prediction, or you don’t like the sort of policy responses that prediction might suggest or encourage, or even if you simply see yourself as a challenger of consensus views in the name of some ideal or other. It is only appropriate to criticize a prediction or theory based on specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework. It is content-less to criticize a scientific prediction because you don’t like it. There are a (very) few ‘climate skeptics’ who criticize and question specific methodologies, assumptions or conclusions within the IPCC reports in a well-structured and precise way, and they are not to be criticized.
Again, we are left wondering, who are the critics who ‘appropriately’ and ‘inappropriately’ criticise the IPCC, and what is their criticism? Cox does not explain, again refusing to identify the critics, their arguments, and the ‘appropriate’ response. Cox is a fine one to talk about ‘criticising’ arguments merely because you don’t like the implication, and that ‘inappropriate criticism’ is content-free. Cox’s only clue as to who he is talking about is this:
They shouldn’t really be called ‘climate skeptics’ – they should be called scientists.
But what he means here is not the likes of Anthony Watts, Andrew Montford or the individuals who have produced reports for the GWPF, even though they, as he instructs, ‘criticize a prediction or theory based on specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework’. He means, of course, scientists working inside the consensus, within research institutions.
Yet he reveals here a basic misunderstanding of the IPCC and its reports.
The IPCC do not issue ‘predictions’. As Kenvin Trenberth — no climate change denier, he — famously explained in 2007,
In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers “what if” projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent “story lines” that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.
And the best estimate of likely future warming has disappeared from the IPCC’s reports. As Judith Curry explains:
It is significant that the AR5 does not cite a best estimate, whereas the AR4 cites a best estimate of 3oC. The stated reason for not including a best estimate in the AR5 is the substantial discrepancy between observation-based estimates of ECS (lower), versus estimates from climate models (higher). Figure 1 of Box 12.2 in the AR5 WG1 report shows that 11 out of 19 observational-based studies of ECS show values below 1.5oC in their ranges of ECS probability distribution. Hence the AR5 reflects greater uncertainty and a tendency towards lower values of the ECS than the AR4.
The problem facing Cox is that his positivism does like — in fact it needs and thrives on — theoretical risk, or uncertainty. He continues,
The scientific consensus can and does change, but it changes because of new science, not because of the amateur histrionics of on-line “opinion formers”.
The reference to Brendan O’Neill, here is misplaced. Brendan O’Neill was not challenging the IPCC, but Cox’s argument about the elevation of science in the political sphere. Cox imagines himself to be the same as the IPCC, such that criticism of him is criticism of the IPCC. Such is the power of the consensus, it wraps itself around everything anyone who claims to speak on its behalf. This should demonstrate that there is a problem with the scientific consensus, and Cox, if he wants to emphasise the value of science, should realise that the ‘consensus’ is not his plaything.
These people are part of the entertainment industry, generating hits for websites to increase advertising revenue. They are not in general clear thinkers capable of making a genuine contribution to knowledge. It follows that any appeal to Mill’s statement that ‘controversy is the lifeblood of knowledge’ must be tempered: Controversy where? Within the scientific community, or within the entertainment industry? Controversy within the entertainment industry is the lifeblood of inaction and confusion, not knowledge. Policy decisions must be made now – doing nothing is a policy decision.
It is rich of Cox, who, like Nurse, refuses to name critics of the IPCC, and who confuses his critics with critics of the IPCC, and who refuses to identify the arguments of the IPCC’s critics, to demand from Brendan O’Neill that he explains ‘controversy where’. Cox, if he understood the debate, should understand that it is not easy to draw lines to divide camps in the climate debate, and that it is not easy to divide sceptics from their apparently scientific counterparts. As Roger Pielke Jr. tweets today:
How lies are made: I have 100+ peer-reviewd papers Skeptical Science labels me a "climate skeptic" Then there's this: http://t.co/eXxd2xELZR
— Roger Pielke Jr. (@RogerPielkeJr) September 4, 2014
The IPCC’s critics are too quickly dismissed as ‘sceptics’, and the areas of controversy that exist too quickly overlooked by the likes of Cox, who thinks that the ‘debate’ consists of no more than the claim and counter-claim that ‘climate change is happening’ and ‘climate change is not happening’.
Cox knows less about the criticisms of the IPCC than he knows about the actual substance of the IPCC’s reports he now urges that people read:
The only logical way to make a decision is to base it on the best science available at the time because there is no other way. So read the most recent IPCC document for policy makers, which is the best summary of the science we have at the present time. Make decisions based on that.
Cox is wrong. The IPCC’s critics have identified deep problems with the IPCC itself, and much of the research that goes into its reports. In particular: i) the emphasis on reconstructions of historical temperature records; ii) the over-sensitivity of climate models; iii) the exaggeration of positive feedback mechanisms and the opposite with respect to negative feedbacks; iv) the over-statement of second and Nth-order effects of warming on natural processes and society as ‘impacts'; v) the IPCC reports are not written exclusively by scientists, but in the case of WGII and WGIII especially, are, as has been discovered — by sceptics — written by academics from other disciplines, often without any remarkable expertise, and by activists, with particular agendas. Sceptics’ work has directly and indirectly resulted in more reflection, by scientists, within and without the IPCC process on issues such as detection and attribution, and estimation of impacts.
It is worth expanding on O’Neill’s point here. What Cox is really afraid of is, paradoxically, science.
Cox has not read — or at least not understood — the IPCC’s reports. That much is obvious. And he has spent even less time reading criticism of the IPCC. If he had read the debate, he would understand that the problem he is now speaking to is not sceptics pouncing on ‘uncertainty’, but institutional science’s failure to check its own members’ over-estimation of risk, and its own and their own political preferences being smuggled into ‘science’. He would know that the debate is not binary, does not divide neatly into two camps, but that at the very least, the excesses of climate alarmists within and without the IPCC, which are further from the ‘consensus’ and greater in consequence than anything uttered by climate change ‘deniers’. And he would realise that enforcing the polarised view of the debate lumps him in with some very weird ideas indeed, which are not only out-of-kilter with the science, but also deeply anti-human and anti-science in fact and in origin. Hence, ‘crushing and burying’ sceptics in the way that Nurse and Cox attempt to, merely damages the reputation of science.
Cox’s insistence that climate science can only proceed within the IPCC, or other institutional apparatus, is an argument to protect the institutional power that science enjoys. If it was revealed that sceptics have successfully challenged the IPCC, and forced climate science to produce better research — not to mention revises its estimates — the positivist’s claim that only ‘appropriate’ criticism (i.e. from within the academy) should be permitted would be shown to be false. Here we have the empirical proof that the positivist should welcome: institutional science is evidentially more easily influenced by politics than are an array of independent researchers, whether or not they are scientifically trained, because they are free to speak out of turn without fear; institutional science cannot check itself for political prejudice and deviation from scientific consensus; climate sceptics can and do successfully challenge institutional science; the problems of the climate debate are problems caused absolutely and entirely by the excesses of institutional science and its proximity to political agendas.
Cox’s position is categorically political. But none of this is to say that Cox understands his position is political, though it is doubtlessly intellectually dishonest. The problem with arguments with radical empiricists and environmentalists is that they do not see their positions as political. The prior knowledge of positivism manifests as something like ‘common sense’, but does not encourage interrogation of its presuppositions. In fact it seems to generate anger when it is challenged.
If the climate debate was as easy to explain and fix as Cox believes, by privileging science and excluding dissent, how come, then, it is not possible for him to explain the basic arguments of climate science and its controversies as it was for him to explain how it is possible to measure the power output of the sun using only a tin can, some water, a thermometer and an umbrella?
Brian Cox loves physics. But his love of physics is not enough to convince us that physics is all that is going on in Brian Cox’s head. Cox wants to use physics to do more than merely form an understanding of the material universe. He wants to use physics to say how the human world should be organised. But this is beyond physics’s power. What remains after science is subtracted from Cox’s vision of the world is a great deal more than he would admit, and it is entirely ‘ideological’, the same as with any other, ordinary lay person. Except lay people don’t get to hide their preferences behind “Science”.
Imagine that you are a journalist — it’s not hard to do — in need of some information about climate change. Where would you turn to first?
You might start with the UK’s allegedly independent Committee on Climate Change, they are charged by the Climate Change Act 2008 with establishing the UK’s ‘carbon budgets’. Or, of course, for more policy-related matters, you could ring the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Both these organisations have media officers. But perhaps you want more of a science angle. In which case, you could have got in touch with the Met Office. The Met Office scientists do lots of research into climate change and its impacts — work that needs no introduction here — much of which comes out of its Hadley Centre. Or you could get in touch with some of the other academic research departments that have been created over the years: The Climate Research Unit at UAE, or al at UEA, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, which has branches at Cardiff University, Newcastle, Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Sussex, or Southampton Universities. Or you could get in touch with The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE, or it’s sister, The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College, just down the road. There’s The Walker Institute for Climate Research at Reading, The National Centre for Atmospheric Science, which is part of the National Environmental Research Council, which funds and directs an array of research programmes across many research organisations, throughout the UK and beyond.
Perhaps you’re more interested in responses to climate change. In which case, there are the government-backed non-profit companies Carbon Trust, Energy Saving Trust, and The Waste & Resources Action Plan (WRAP). Or there are the departments, quangos, statutory bodies and non departmental public bodies, not already mentioned, like OFGEM, the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Environment Agency, The Forestry Commission, and many others.
And of course, let us not forget the charities and NGOS!… Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The WWF, The RSPB, and those one-time development and relief charities, who prefer to concentrate on making the weather noce, rather than saving people’s lives, like Oxfam, Tearfund, and Save the Children. An even fuller list can be found on Wikpedia.
In other words, if you wanted to find out about the climate, there are, literally, thousands of people, in hundreds of organisations, with budgets totalling many, many £billions, that you could call on — and that’s before we’ve even considered other individual experts and organisations in other countries. Each of them has a view on climate change and probably wants to share it with you. Every organisation listed above has at least one media officer, if not an entire media team.
(In other words, if you are a journalist, and you’re unsure about where to go for a comment about climate change, you are doing the wrong job, and the discussions about mediocrity in the previous two posts on this blog apply to you absolutely.)
So why, then, has this week seen the birth of a new climate change organisation, the ominously-titled, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit?
The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit is a non-profit organisation that supports informed debate on energy and climate change issues in the UK.
We support journalists and other communicators with accurate and accessible briefings on key issues, and work with individuals and organisations that have interesting stories to tell, helping them connect to the national conversation.
But isn’t this is a job that was already being done by The Carbon Brief.
Carbon Brief reports on the latest developments and media coverage of climate science and energy policy, with a particular focus on the UK. We produce news coverage, analysis and factchecks, and publish a daily and weekly email briefing.
Carbon Brief are…
… grateful for the support of the European Climate Foundation, which provides our funding.
And The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit gladly tells us that,
All of our funding comes from philanthropic foundations. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the European Climate Foundation, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation.
Tellus Mater are a mysterious organisation…
Tellus Mater’s mission is to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill it’s role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.
Furthering green capitalism strikes me as a categorically political objective. And yet here it seems to be presenting itself as a philanthropic organisation, pursuing indubitably noble, if not value-free objectives, while not listing its supporters, or saying much at all about where its own money comes from.
The Grantham Foundation, of course, is set up from the extraordinary wealth of the super-rich Jeremy Grantham — another mega capitalist, again, note.
And the European Climate Foundation…
was established in early 2008 as a major philanthropic initiative to promote climate and energy policies that greatly reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to help Europe play an even stronger international leadership role to mitigate climate change.
The group of philanthropists who founded the ECF were deeply concerned over the lack of political action and the lack of general public awareness around the devastating future consequences implied by climate change. They formed the ECF – a ‘foundation of foundations’ – to collaborate in ensuring the necessary transformation from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy.
The ECF has an annual budget of roughly €25 million. The majority of our funds are re-granted to NGOs and think tanks engaged in bringing about meaningful policy change. Our programme staff collaborate with grantees and experts from the field and funders to design and fund strategies based on a thorough understanding of decision-makers, decision-making processes, and political context. In 2012, we made 181 grants to 102 organisations.
There seems to be a lot of ‘philanthropic’ activity aimed not as much at helping people, as managing the public’s perception of climate change and influencing policy makers. The alleged “lack of general public awareness around the devastating future consequences implied by climate change” is of course, what has concerned all three major political parties, and thus the government, its departments, The United Nations and its organisations, the European Union and its organisations, NGOs, charities, and of course, all manner of public organisations.
It is a puzzling thing… democratic governments, supranational political organisations and charities seem to be out of kilter with the public mood, yet each depend on the public to a greater or lesser extent, for legitimacy. Together, they seem to think it is their role to persuade the public rather than respond to them. It is hard to resist the idea that this gap in fact precedes the political establishment’s embrace of climate change, and that the possibility of the end of the world in fact comes as quite a relief to those who still have positions of power, in spite of that gap.
The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) demonstrated the need for itself by commissioning a survey. The poll, said the ECIU, “shows widespread misconceptions about energy and climate change”.
It shows that only one in nine (11 percent) of people are aware of the strength of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, a finding that the ECIU said carries ‘uncomfortable echoes’ of the MMR controversy of 15 years ago.
In fact, the Comres survey asked,
What proportion of climate scientists do you think believe that climate change is mainly the result of human activities?
The answers were as follows:
Almost all 11%
A majority 43%
About half and half 35%
A minority 9%
Almost none 2%
It wasn’t good enough for ECIU that 43% of respondents only said ‘a majority’ — they were ignorant if they didn’t say ‘amost all’. ECIU continue,
Nearly half of the UK population (47 percent) think either that most climate scientists reject the idea that human activities such as fossil fuel burning are the main driver of climate change (11 percent), or that scientists are evenly split on the issue (35 percent). Several recent studies [ Cook et al, Tol, Verheggen et al] show that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that the main cause of climate change is human activity.
In spite of surveys such as Cook et al, the view that scientists are split on a proposition as ambiguously framed as the survey’s is not unreasonable.
For instance, even if one believes i) that climate change is a problem, and that ii) it is a problem caused by industrial emissions, and even that iii) most scientists believe i) and ii), there is the question of degree to which a) climate change is a problem, b) climate change is caused by man, which the proposition in the survey ducks. The problem of ill-defined propositions is rife in climate change science, as I pointed out last year:
Nuccitelli’s survey results are either the result of a comprehensive failure to understand the climate debate, or an attempt to divide it in such a way as to frame the result for political ends. The survey manifestly fails to capture arguments in the climate debate sufficient to define a consensus, much less to make a distinction between arguments within and without the consensus position. Nuccitelli’s survey seems to canvas scientific opinion, but it begins from entirely subjective categories: a cartoonish polarisation of positions within the climate debate.
No less a figure than climate scientist, Professor Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre, joined the debate.
Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it. It offers a similar depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to that adopted in Anderegg et al.’s 2010 equally poor study in PNAS: dividing publishing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?
The informed member of the public would now know that respectable, consensus, mainstream position on climate change is that,
1. There are serious problems with the historical temperature record, especially as it has been constructed from proxies.
2. There are serious problems with projections of likely future temperature, especially as they have been produced from computer models.
3. There are no detectable signals, attributable to climate change, in statistical records of climate, or losses associate with them.
These are points which emerge from mainstream climate science. They are not the irrational beliefs held by anti-scientific ‘deniers’.
So the scientific understanding of the planet’s past and future climate, once regarded as an essential component of understanding climate change are in fact matters of debate. It might be reasonable for the public to regard the question posed by the survey as trivial. And as Judith Curry points out about the current climate, there are many problems with the claim that ‘more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together’ — far from speaking for itself, the statement needs unpacking and its premises interrogating. Meanwhile, the Cook et al study deviated from the consensus position in effect by including in its estimation of the ‘consensus’, studies which proceeded from the putative consensus a priori, rather than investigating it. The problem, as I have explained in the article linked to above, is one of a ‘consensus without an object': most people agree with the consensus without identifying what the point or principle of agreement is, thus the ‘consensus’ is invented ad hoc, to suit whatever is needed from it, in any particular debate. New light has been shed on the study by Jose Duarte.
In the case of the ECIU’s attempt to construct foundations for itself out of the public’s ignorance of science, this new organisation does a good job of mangling its own survey, which aimed to measure the public’s memory of an earlier mangled survey — Cook et al. One can now imagine that someone in the future trying to understand the construction of successive organisations, each built on the failures of previous organisations. There will be some kind of archaeologist, peeling back through mangled surveys and studies, but never reaching the actual point of origin — a climate change big bang.
The problem that exists in the present for the likes of Cook et al’s 97% survey, is that it is not having the desired effect of rousing the masses from their climate science slumber. Yet it was transparently a PR exercise, rather than an attempt to inform the public. So too, for that matter, is the European Climate Foundation’s sister-project, The Climate Brief, a PR exercise. One might recall at this point, another PR exercise:
The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is a match-making service to connect climate scientists with lawmakers and the media. The group is committed to providing rapid, high-quality information to media and government officials.
Climate Science Rapid Response team member scientists are chosen to cover a wide array of topics related to Climate Science. They have been selected based upon their publications in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals.
There is a wide gap between what scientists know about climate change and what the public knows. The scientists of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team understand that better communication can narrow this gap. The media is in the best position to deliver accurate science information to the general public and to our elected leaders but only when they have access to that information. The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is committed to delivering that service. We are advocates for science education.
The climate change communication field now seems crowded with organisations claiming to be able to connect the public, via the media, with climate scientists.
The Climate Science Rapid Response Team seems to have been convened by Richard Hawkins of the Public Interest Research Centre(PIRC). And as we know, it’s all about funding…
PIRC was set up with grants from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable and Social Services Trust. One way or another, JRCT has supported every one of our major ventures over the years.
PIRC has also been core-funded for many years by the 1970 Trust, and grants for individual projects have in the past been given by other organisations including the Consumers Association, Social Science Research Council, Allen Lane Foundation, Artists Project Earth, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, the Network for Social Change, Nuffield Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Sainsburys Family Trusts and Trocaire. In the past few years have also received support from civil society organisations, including WWF-UK, RSPB, and 10 other conservation organisations for Common Cause for Nature.
So now there are an entire ecosystem of philanthropic organisations, funding other organisations to ‘inform’ an apparently ignorant public for their own good. But each of them fail to alter the balance of public opinion. What has the ECIU got that The Climate Science Rapid Response Team not got? And what have they got that The Carbon Brief hasn’t got? And while we’re there, what have those organisations got that organisations like The Science Media Centre — which also aims to put scientists in front of cameras — have not got?
Paul Matthew in the comments below notes that we should remember the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), which is also funded by the ECF, amongst many others. And Responding To Climate Change (RTCC), which appears to be a project of a private company, Entico, which has substantial contracts with the United Nations. Then there’s the conglomeration of NGOs, ClimateCoalition, and CaCC (Campaign against Climate Change), too — each of which claims to be doing the same thing.
We should examine these claims to be informing the public and raising the level of debate. That is not the effect of any of these organisations. All such sound-byte mines do is encourage lazy, sloppy, cut-and-paste journalism. Churnalism. All the journalist needs to do, now, to write a piece about climate change, is ring up any of these organisations, ask for the officially-sanctioned and hygienic comment, without ever having had to go to the trouble of understanding the debate they are reporting on.
The founder of ECIU is Richard Black, a former BBC journalist, who became known for his palpable activism-cum-journalism — not something which is deserving of criticism in and of itself, but which under the pretence of i) scientific journalism, and ii) the BBC’s commitment to the environmental issue, is rather jarring. Just as there are plenty of ‘units’ established to ‘communicate’ science, and a surfeit of media organisations intent on burdening the public with ‘information’ about climate change, journalists like Black were ten-a-penny. That is the consequence of mediocrity’s ascendency, of course. There was speculation that Black’s notoriously one-sided hectoring became too much, even for the BBC. The notion that the public might not be getting the right messages might not be all that distinct to bitterness at being removed from an organisation which very rarely gets rid of anyone it has put in the public eye.
But journalists removed from such high profile institutions as the BBC’s World Service leave with the connections to the world intact. Hence, Black has been able to assemble quite a team, as Andrew Montford notes, over at Bishop Hill.
Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green & Bow
Richard Benyon, MP for Newbury
The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, British Medical Journal
Professor Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change Policy, UCL
Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-Director, Grantham Institute, Imperial College London
Marylyn Haines Evans, Public Affairs Chair, National Federation of Women’s Institutes
Martin Horwood, MP for Cheltenham
Lord Howard of Lympne
Robin Lustig, Journalist and Broadcaster
Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, Former Commander, UK Maritime Forces
Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool
Lord Puttnam of Queensgate
The Earl of Selborne
Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Head of Open Oceans, British Antarctic Survey
Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness
Sir Crispin Tickell, Former Ambassador to the United Nations
Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director, IIED
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell
I shall spare you the biographies. Andrew suggests that this ugly assembly represents ‘the goblin version of the GWPF’, which is certainly the most of it.
This puts me in mind of a recent post by Judith Curry on ‘Institutionalizing Dissent‘. Says Curry,
One of the norms of science is organized skepticism. Those working at the climate science – policy interface (including the IPCC) have worked hard to kill organized skepticism by manufacturing a consensus on climate change. The idea of a climate red team has been put forward by John Christy. Kantrowitz and Biddle have thought through how institutionalizing dissent might actually work. Particularly for climate science, implementing something like this wouldn’t be simple, and actually achieving the desired objectives would be quite difficult.
I’ve previously drawn a distinction between science as a process and science as an institution (or institutions). When institutional science is expected to produce a consensus, it seems to me, it is at the expense of the process of science, to the extent that the scientific process needs an institutional basis (at least for the resources, etc, that scientific research needs). The manufacture of consensus, it seems to me, is equivalent to the manufacture of consent, or at least equivalent to its circumnavigation: who needs a demos, when you have a mandate from the objectivity of science? But the demos doesn’t go away…
This seems to me to be the point of ‘units’, such as the ECIU. Although such organisations have been unsuccessful at reproducing their ideas in the public’s mind, climate institutions have nonetheless multiplied to occupy a great deal of public space. One can think of orthodoxies being established materially, rather than ‘ideologically’, so to speak, to achieve the same effect. This is the construction of consensus, as opposed to its mere manufacture.
When David Cameron was launching his ‘Big Society’ initiatives, I happened to be working with anti-wind farm campaigners, producing films and other research. It struck me how far removed these people were from the lofty heights of green NGOs. With their feet firmly planted in Brussels and Westminster, NGOs are based in huge office complexes, whereas wind farm campaigns really were launched from kitchen tables, by amateurs, who had zero experience of any kind of campaigning, and few contacts to ask for favours from. Although they are characterised — caricatured — as rural, moneyed and privileged (which I found only occasionally to be the case), wind farm campaigners lacked any resources save for what they had in their pockets. Whereas Greenpeace et al have legal teams to take development or planning issues to the High Court, it was beyond the means of most campaigners to apply for judicial review, and would do at huge personal cost and financial risk. There was never any hope of establishing any kind of institutional response to wind energy.
Whether it is in debates about science or energy policy, those debates have been won by the creation of institutions, in something like ‘astroturfing’. But “informing” the public, or claiming to speak for ordinary people isn’t as much the point as simply dominating the public sphere.
At the other end of the world to the wind farm campaigners — and it might as well be the other end of the universe — is the green lobbying and PR effort. Zombie ‘philanthropic’ organisations. The rotting corpses of dead billionaires infect the world of the living. Take, for instance, the words of the European Climate Foundation — funders of The Carbon Brief and The ECIU:
Adopting stricter standards and effective labels for appliances and equipment
All energy-using products made in or imported into the EU must meet minimum energy performance standards and product labels that encourage the production and purchase of more efficient models. The Ecodesign and Energy Labelling directives both established complex processes for designing and adopting new standards and labels. To counter industry efforts to weaken requirements and delay implementation, we support a network of technical experts and NGOs that monitor and participate in the regulatory process and arm policymakers with data and analyses to ensure adoption of the most ambitious, technically and economically feasible requirements. Our work in this arena has already led to notable successes, most recently on boilers and vacuum cleaners.
The ECF are congratulating themselves for having lobbied — spending 25 million Euros a year — the European Union to ban electronic appliances with energy consumption over a certain rating. That meant lightbulbs and washing machines, and just this week, it means vaccum cleaners, and in the future it will mean more and more appliances. It sounds somewhat trivial, but although it means that although washing machines now use less water and less electricity, it means they are less good at cleaning. Ditto, vacuum cleaners with less power are less able to produce a vacuum, and thus less able to clean floors. The policymaker’s conceit is that by setting a standard in law, innovation follows. But there was never a need to force competing manufacturers to find an edge over each other. Now, rather than meeting consumer need, manufacturers have to meet the needs of Europe’s technocrats, and the will of dead billionaires.
And although the consequences are for the consumer, and it seems like so much whinging about not having quite as good an electrical appliance as could be had, the means by which this transformation was acheived was political. The ECF, again:
Our primary geographic focus is on Brussels (the hub of EU policymaking), Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Poland – five venues that play a critical role determining Europe’s political leadership on climate and energy policy.
The institutions where policies are made should not be the plaything of philanthropic organisations and their benefactors. What business do the ECF, and for that matter Richard Black and the ECIU have in Brussels, Germany, the UK and Poland? They are not elected. They do not stand for public positions.
So don’t be fooled, The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit does not exist to inform the public, but to deny the public democratic expression. The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit is not about ‘science’, it is about transforming politics, to take power away from people, to put it in the hands of dead ‘philanthropists’.
The last post here noted that there was more than coincidence to environmentalism’s ascendency and the decline of the press. The broader point made here is that mediocrity seems to infect many public institutions, who in turn seem to resort to environmentalism. It’s not just the press; it is hard not to see environmental ‘ethics’ where the ground that has supported organisations seems to have slipped. From agencies which once promised to elevate less developed parts of the world, through to political parties which once represented (or claimed to represent) an entire economic class, promises to construct a better world have given way to a more basic commitment: saving you from Themageddon.
This observation is vulnerable to the criticism that some individuals have been pointed out as mediocre — certain journalists in particular — which may be synonymous with ‘stupid’. The first defence I would make here is that of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the point being that the environmentalist, be he a journalist or academic, presumes that the individual who calls him out on his nakedness does so out of stupidity, the clothes only being visible to those wise enough to wear them. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is aimed precisely at the tendency of people in power to find ways to justify their status and to further elevate themselves. Second, much of that self-justification involves contempt for ordinary people. Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” being perhaps the epitome of such a big green finger pointing at people. To disagree is not to have understood or engaged with the ideas, but to be too stupid to understand.
This classic intellectual self-defence move can be seen in motion in the comments under Bob Ward’s latest rant against Matt Ridley at the New Statesman.
There is no possibility of ‘debating’ with deniers. You cannot use reason, logic and science to persuade someone who was not convinced by reason, logic and science to begin with.
You have no idea what you are talking about and you flatly refuse to be educated.
I just can’t be bothered with ignorant gullible dupes who don’t even understand basic schoolboy physics.
The “alarmists” have sighed in resignation and refused to take part in the farce that is global warming denial.
If we had a debate on the moon, with an astrophysicist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and an astronaut, we might learn something about the moon even if none of them agreed on a thing. If David Icke showed up and said the moon was a hollowed out deathstar constructed by aliens, which was then used to wipe out the dinosaurs, and the others simply refused to engage him, that wouldn’t “expose” them as being wrong and it wouldn’t show their position is empty.
As was pointed out in the previous post, the quality of self-justification does not improve as one moves from the world of online comments, through to the Royal Society and the Committee on Climate Change. Paul Nurse and John Gummer’s arguments are no more sophisticated than Fuzzyspider’s and Leslie Graham’s, whoever they are. Thus the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society do not have to account for themselves in the face of criticism. But what is the point of science academies and expert panels if it is not to shed light on debates, and to respond to criticism? Rather than following in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the tendency seems to be to belittle critics, and to attack their character.
To understand the climate debate, then, it is often necessary to look outside it, rather than take it at face value. The claim I’m making here is that we can see reasons for public figures’ and institutions’ total embrace of environmentalism and their resistance to criticism. The debate is far wider than the question “is climate change happening?”, which seems to often resort to claiming that the public and deniers are ‘stupid’, which now prompt the question “aren’t these emperors, in fact, quite stupid?”.
Take, for example, the recent experience of Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, Dr. Susan Blackmore. “A hundred walked out of my lecture”, she complains after her lecture to a group of young students visiting Oxford University failed to convince them that their ideas were not the result of an active engagement with the world, but merely the colonisation of their minds by autonomous agents, known as ‘memes’.
Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.
I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.
Blackmore believes that religious sensibilities were being offended, causing the exit. But there are good reasons why an atheist might be moved to do the same. Being host to an atheist ‘memeplex’ is no better than being host to a religious ‘memeplex’. Thus she has no right to be offended by her students’ exit. She wasn’t just calling religious people stupid, she was calling every last member of the audience stupid…
I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.
The problem for Blackmore, as for Dennet, is that whereas the mechanisms of evolution — DNA — has been isolated, the mechanisms by which ideas and culture are transmitted are harder to identify. The mutation of ideas is usually intentional, which is to say that adaptation is about something, or for some end, at least as often as it is accidental. Matt Ridley calls this process ‘ideas having sex’, but I think he strays too close to the Dawkins-Dennet-Blackmore line here, albeit ending with something much more positive. It is people who generate ideas, in the circumstances they find themselves in, for particular ends. Blackmore, argues, on the other hand, that self-awareness is an illusion, that there is no ‘consciousness’ as such; these are just the products of memeplexes.
This requires a small amount of consideration. Is this a satisfactory way of accounting for our experience of the world, or is it a hasty attempt to circumvent difficult philosophical questions, to bring ‘science’ to bear over questions that science cannot answer yet? I believe it is the latter.
Is the self-perception of the seemingly autonomous self any less weird — i.e. easy to explain — than free will itself? I deny that it is. We find ourselves faced with at least the illusion of autonomy, yet even putting this down to the expression of ‘memes’ having infected our mind moves us no closer to understanding the mechanism by which mere substance produces experience, including will. Blackmore takes a massive shortcut through thousands of years of philosophical reflection on subjective experience — humanity — to say ‘it’s a process‘, yet cannot explain the process. The result is, at best, prosaic. And that is why theoreticians hoping to advance the field of ‘memetics’ have made no progress, and have only antagonised their relationships with their religious counterparts, and alienated themselves. The only notable thing they have achieved is to promote the word ‘meme’ as it applies to the transmission of novelty web content, which is however, more easily explained by the desire to overcome the boredom experienced by people working in office environments, than by the idea of mindless ‘meme-machines’ reproducing content.
In other words, the problem facing memeticians is in reproducing their ideas beyond the narrow environment in which such ideas seem to thrive. But notice that the consequences of memetics do not seem to apply to its proponents.
Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?
I grew up not a quarter of a mile from that very High Street, not one inch of which would look the same had there never been religion. For all the problems attributed to religion, it had created a unique centre of learning, in which the theory of genetic evolution has been advanced, and things such as penicillin discovered, and ideas such as freedom of religion and democracy thrived. Side-by-side, contesting perspectives of the universe were developed, no doubt occasionally resulting in some form of conflict, but as often as not between competing explanations of the physical realm as between accounts of creation and their consequences for the Good Life.
The view of religion offered by memeticians, however, is that it causes people who are ‘infected’ by religion to cut the heads from the shoulders of infidels. Again, I propose a simpler explanation for the horrific acts, which are now transmitted by social media than the one offered by Dawkins and his acolytes. To emphasise the role that religion plays in conflict is to eschew any attempt at understanding the political history of those conflicts, and how it has narrowed the possibilities of transcending religious identities, rendering them trivial. No doubt the doctrine of the Islamic State is poison. But it is advancing through a war-ravaged region, by force of terror, not by transmission of some infectious agent between minds. It is a reign of gangsters and warlords over people denied protection, not the proliferation of an idea. Again, to explain the transmission of the idea as the communication of ‘memes’ belies the fact that the choice given is ‘believe this or die’.
What I am suggesting here is firstly that people walked out of Sue Blackmore’s lecture because she takes a condescending view of people. Second, that this notion of people as stupid and blind automata seems to be prevalent amongst the political class. It seems to explain to them why the hoi polloi take risks with their health, don’t obey authority, and don’t take sufficient notice of climate expertise. In particular, seemingly ‘scientific’ ideas are used to belittle the public, to question their competence to act even in their own interests as individuals and en masse. Such patronising views of people are not unique to the climate debate.
Although the metaphysical proposition — or rather complete denial of metaphysics — of memetics and discussion about it seems like so much philosowaffle, ideas about the constitution of the human mind inform a great deal of policy-making and politics. The mediocrity spoken of above and in the previous post sits in contrast to an era in which politics was, for the most part, premised on the notion of individual autonomy: that people are capable of making decisions for themselves and capable of understanding the risks they are exposed to. This transformation of the political establishment’s view of the public is concomitant with a transformation of the relationship between public institutions and the public they once served but who they increasingly see as children needing to be managed.
The world of memes and the world of climate change came together in 2012, when Blackmore’s house was flooded. Writing in the Guardian, she said,
This will pass. Yet what remains is the potential for future floods. These “extreme weather events” are just what climate scientists predicted, and we must expect more as the planet warms further.
I’m trying to enjoy the new knowledge gained and think positively about a house that will be better protected and more resilient when the next extreme weather comes. But, above all, I’m left with this thought: we, as a country and as a world, seem to have ignored the advice of the 2006 Stern review, that acting fast on climate change would be cheaper than coping with the consequences. We didn’t act. So now we must cope with the consequences. Rebuilding homes as they were before is not the way to cope.
The world — or at least insurance providers — was not acting quickly enough for Blackmore. Whether or not climate scientists ‘predicted’ ‘extreme weather events’, the flooding that affected her house was neither extreme, nor unprecedented, nor attributable to climate change. Moreover, the issue for anyone living, as Blackmore does, on a flood plain, is not how to stop climate change, but how to manage the excess water that has always plagued people who live on them. Her emphasis on climate change rather than on essential civil infrastructure, however, demonstrates the extent to which the climate change ‘meme’ influences thinking on issues. She had connected, in her own head, for herself, her experience with the prevailing narrative of climate change and ‘extreme weather’. And she had connected them wrongly, as many studies into the frequency and intensity of ‘extreme weather’ have shown. Memes and memeplexes had nothing to do with her joining up her bad ideas with the claims of environmental alarmism.
Does this make her stupid? In my view, Blackmore is not the brightest thinker in the world, but not necessarily stupid, of course. The point being that mediocrity elevates those who are obedient to fashionable schools of thought. The fact of the elevation of redundant parapsychologists to public intellectuals speaks for itself. Blackmore gave up ghost hunting to tell us that we are illusions, and seems to have prospered for doing so. This move wasn’t as useful to society as it was useful to something. And it needs an explanation.
The proliferation of stupid is masked by its own attempts to tell us that we are stupid. But it speaks simultaneously about its own anxiety about its own tenuous grasp on reality, and no less, power. As daft as Blackmore’s ideas about memes are, her elevation of Stern is even dafter. If there was any value in memetics, the genetic analogy would have long ago shown Stern’s work for what it is — an exercise in justifying power for power’s sake.
This blog has long argued that one of the forces driving environmentalism’s ascendency is mediocrity, especially in the press. Green-inkers fancy themselves in some kind of war with sceptics or deniers of what they imagine to be the ‘reality of climate change’. But in fact most responses to the extravagation of alleged journalists in (but not at all limited to) the Independent and Guardian newspapers are incredulity that somebody so thick in the head could be hired by broadsheets, not that the planet’s response to CO2 is warming.
In the wake of ridiculous articles from Geoffrey Lean, Danny Weston has an account of his interaction with former Telegraph environmental correspondent Louise Gray, over at Bishop Hill. Says Weston,
She became well known for her “churnalism” of environmentalist press releases, which were then passed off as journalism with due diligence. Unfortunately only those regularly commenting on her pieces seemed to be aware of this.
Noting ‘complete lack of critical filters on her part’, Weston confronted Gray, who, to her credit, took the matter up with him after a debate, to defend herself. Whereas most environmental journalists typically take the opportunity to run away from criticism, Gray’s mistake seems to have been honesty. Her copy was no more alarmist or absurdly stupid than anything written by Leo Hickman, Damian Carrington or Suzanne Goldenberg, but her defence was underwhelming.
Weston shows the manifestation of mediocrity at work in the copy — and it really is copied — on the green pages of today’s newspapers.
I’ve often wondered how this happened. Weston offers this explanation.
I look at the rubbish routinely pumped out by the likes of Lean and Gray and have increasing difficulty in believing that they mendaciously cling to the climate catastrophism schtick to drive their journalism as a matter of pure ideology.
Weston is right. I can’t think of a smart green journalist. They are, to a man (and woman, of course), apparently quite dim, not given to thinking even that what they churn from “scientists” and NGOs can be criticised. (Indeed, they occasionally end up working for green NGOs, Leo Hickman and Richard Black, for instance).
My theory about how this happened is this. Geography has never been a sexy subject. No newspaper would have ever willingly run stories on the Earth’s natural processes because they are usually boring to most people. But as environmental issues rose up the global and later national political agenda, correspondents with the knowledge necessary to write on the subject informatively were sought. But editors hiring staff have confused passion for a subject with knowledge of a subject. Let’s face it, activists write more exciting copy than the authors of geography textbooks.
One has to be more ignorant than most journalists are to not know that social experiments with deterministic ideas about the world have been tried before, within and without environmental debates. And one needs to be especially stupid not to be able to see climate alarmism in the context of a movement that began with population and resource-centric environmentalism championed by the likes of Paul Ehrlich. As good as such journalists are at reciting the environmentalist’s litany, they are never any good at engaging with critical reflection on it.
What holds for newspapers holds for the academy and political institutions. At some point, some bright spark asked, ‘what is the use of universities’. Knowledge as an end in itself was abandoned, and universities were increasingly made to explain their value, and so established departments and courses specifically aimed to further ‘good governance’ and to produce ‘policy-relevant’ research. Ditto, as the atrophy of political movements turned into full-blown gangrene, green hues bloomed. As left intellectuals died, became confused by age and disoriented by the collapse of their organisations, so the appeal of a planetary emergency grew. The preferred argument against capitalism that today’s leading left-wing thinkers offer is not, per left-wing intellectuals of the past, grounded in sophisticated and abstract understanding of the human condition, the workings of capital, and the identification of mutual interests, but is mere climate blackmail. Here’s Naomi Klein, introducing her latest book, ‘This Changes Everything‘, for example:
Naomi Klein bases her work on ‘a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’. Klein’s embrace of Werner is discussed here.
“Our economic model”, says Klein, “is at war with life on Earth”. This needs to be seen in relation to the view that used to identify the left’s criticism of capitalism. Whereas Klein proposes that capitalism puts humans into an antagonistic relationship with ‘life’ (i.e. ‘Nature’), the historic left’s position was that capitalism created economic classes of people with mutually antagonistic interests.
The rights and wrongs of the historic position to the side, although Klein pitches her argument in terms of ‘building a better world’, her zero-sum-world eco-socialism is mere window-dressing for shallow apocalyptic utopianism: do as I say or the planet dies. People are not asked to come together to build the better world they want, but the world the ‘pink-haired complex systems researcher’ has designed for them. That’s what pink-haired complex systems researchers do. They aren’t good for anything else.
Klein is only the latest person to understand that mathematical models of the environment have political utility. More mainstream (though arguably no less ‘radical’) political organisations have understood precisely this since at least the late 1960s. Because, similarly, governments have found it as hard to justify themselves as atrophied left wing organisations.
The promise of mediocre individuals in powerful positions — let us call them ‘mediocrats’, and their reign ‘mediocracy’ — is to save us from disaster. But we should see this promise for what it is, an inability to either humbly withdraw from public life or to articulate anything better than mere survival. Once expectations have been set so low as to convince us all that, like some victim of a terminal condition, each day might be our last, each day becomes a gift from them.
And this brings us back to the latter-day eco-hacks — the idiot propagandists for mediocracy. Weston says,
… collective hysteria and belief in imminent doom provides a fantastic cover if you have the unfortunate combination of being incompetent, a bit dim and looking for an easy ride being employed amongst the commentariat and attending jollies. I think I’d rather have the competent ideologues to contend with, personally.
I think he does them a favour. We should not be fooled — they really are that stupid. Running away is as much as the best minds in the climate medicracy can muster. Chris will be waiting a long time for environmentalism’s competent ideologues. Take, for example, the Twitter feed of one mediocrat, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Lord John Deben, PKA, John Selwyn Gummer, on Twitter. In the face of criticism, Gummer, unlike Gray, runs away, calling his critics ‘dismissers‘. Even the Nobel Prize-winning minds at the Royal Society refuse to engage in public debate, preferring instead to snipe at Nigel Lawson. The quality of the debate does not improve as one moves away from the seemingly street-level environmentalism of Klein and Occuppiers, through the realms of the junior mediocrats like Bob Ward, up to the ranks of Stern, Nurse and Gummer, and EU and UN nutcases like Christiana Figueres and Connie Hedegaard. Environmental correspondents on national newspapers ought to be able to catch them out. But their bosses employed dullards, whereas in the past one had to be at least slightly brighter than average to catch a job on a national daily.
A popular notion that has driven a lot of thinking on ‘green energy’ is that the entire world’s demand for energy is equivalent to (or can be met by) the amount of sunlight falling on a relatively small area of land. For instance, this image has done the rounds recently:
The image is taken from this thesis, which explains,
…an area of 254 km x 254 km would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. The amount of electricity needed by the EU-25 states could be produced on an area of 110 km x 110 km. For Germany with a demand of 500 TWh/y an area of 45 km x 45 km is required, which concerns 0.03 % of all suited areas in North Africa (BMU, 2004b).
Hmm. There’s something… I can’t quite put my finger on it… about this carving up of Africa… to exploit its resources… It seems eerily reminiscent of something… But let’s put that to the side, and just consider the technical practicalities.
A 254km x 254km space would require 64,516,000,000 1 metre square PV cells to cover it. Or, in other words, just over nine square meters per person in the world. But this is assuming that we all use the same amount of electricity. We don’t. Greens want us to cut the amount of electricity we use. But I don’t see any virtue in this at all. The minimum people in the future should expect is the same as people living in the highest income countries today. That is to say it would be a good thing if commodities such as electricity become cheaper and more abundant, making it possible for people to do more of a greater number of things.
So what would such a world look like? According to the world bank, the per capita consumption of electricity is 8,905 kilowatt hours in ‘high income’ countries. Multiplying this by 7 billion gives us 62,335 terawatt hours. The thesis referred to above says that a 1km sq area can produce 250GWh of electricity a year. Therefore, we’d need around a quarter of a million square km, or an area 500 km on each side. That’s 250 billion solar panels, or 36 per person. And this is before we have considered other energy uses — heat and transport, in particular.
8,950kWh only gives you 118 hours in a 75kW car. Even if each person only used the equivalent of around 2 hours a week, we’d now need an area twice as big as the one proposed by the thesis. Let’s give future generations an hour a day in a 75kw car (or some vehicle, which has not been invented yet). That’s 27,375kwh per year.
And we must consider flight. This article suggests that “a 747 flying five hours from San Francisco to Washington D.C. consumes 700,000 KWhs of energy”. According to British Airways, a 747-400 can carry 345 passengers. So that’s 2,029kWh per passenger for a five hours flight. 4,058 if we include the return journey. Now, let us be generous to future generations, and afford them a minimum of three such journeys a year each. That’s 12,174kWh per year each.
It is much harder to estimate how much future generations might depend on controlling their temperature. For this, I’m going to use the UK figure, assuming that it’s roughly between a hot and a cool place. And that where, in warmer climes, people will use this much on cooling, in colder climes the same will be used for heating. The average UK home uses around 16,000 kWh of gas, used mainly to heat space, according to DECC. And the UK’s 63 million people live in 28 million homes. So that’s an average of 7,111KWh per person.
This gives us a total of 55,565 kWh per person. And we should factor in population growth. Let’s say 10 billion at some point. That’s a requirement of 555,650,000 gWh, which in turn would require an area of 2,222,600 square KM, or an area just shy of 1,500km on its side, encompassing some 2,222,600,000,000 solar panels. Here’s the thesis image, compared with what I imagine the future to look like:
Now, of course, some if this is unfair. Solar PV will become more efficient. And so will our use of energy. But it is naive to think that becoming more efficient with our use of a thing means we use less of a thing. For one very big example, we might begin to stop relying on natural processes such as the weather and sun to produce crops. We might start to grow crops indoors, lit artificially. And we might at last begin to take transport seriously, such that a daily commute of a thousand miles or more is possible and even comfortable. And it is naive to only see future energy demand only in the terms of current energy demand. Everything is likely going to be powered by electricity in the future, rather than by fuels as such, so we should not discriminate between energy used to power iPods, and energy used to power jet planes. Energy is energy. In spite of the obvious problems with such back-of-an-envelope of estimations, I believe my estimate is much safer. It demonstrates that as simple as carving up north Africa sounds — it’s been tried before, of course — it belies a great deal of complexity which the thesis’s graphic neglects.
However, my intention is not to pour water on the thesis, which is why I haven’t referred to it by name. I am agnostic about solar, even if it means we need a panel the size of a country to make it work.
What concerns me is the extent of solar evangelism, and the excesses of its proselytisers. What caught my eye recently was this bold claim in the Guardian.
Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete
As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it’s used. Centralised, coal-fired power is over.
The basis for Giles Parkinson’s claim is not in fact a revolution in solar technology, but merely an artefact of a distorted market. This is how Parkinson explains it:
Last week, for the first time in memory, the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day.
For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.
Negative prices sounds like a good thing. Better even than free food, food that you get paid to eat. But just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a lunch you get paid to eat. But negative prices in fact mean there is trouble on the grid — it is at risk of becoming unstable. Paying people to consume it means paying people to take away a dangerous surplus.
The links provided by Parkinson all refer to his other articles, which provide only slightly more information. This article contains the following graphic of electricity demand and price in Queensland over a 48 hour period.
On Tuesday this week, the wholesale price of electricity (in red in graph above) skirted around zero for several hours in the afternoon, and on Wednesday they plunged to minus $100/MWh at 2.20. (They were back at zero on Thursday morning between 11am and noon).
As an inspection of the graph reveals, the graph starts on Tuesday 1 July, at 11pm. So it seems that Parkinson is at best confused about the point at which the graph shows the wholesale price of electricity ‘skirting around zero’, apparently confusing early morning prices for the previous afternoon prices. Here is a graph of the price data, from 00:00 on 1 July 2014 through to 23:59 on Wednesday 2 July, so that we can be clear that what Parkinson claimed to have happened did not in fact happen.
To the best of my understanding — and I hope Australian readers will forgive me for my ignorance of their country’s geography (I hope one day to be able to afford the price of a ticket) — Queensland does not typically experience sunlight between the hours of 2 and 4 AM. So the notion that solar PV pushed the price of electricity down during this time seems far-fetched indeed.
Then there is the matter of the low/negative prices later on Wednesday. The sample rate of this graph is 30 minutes. And as we can see, there are no negative prices at this scale, meaning that the price was negative perhaps for about 5 minutes. During that 30 minute window, yes, the average RRP was much closer to zero, as it had been 12 hours earlier. But how significant is this?
A clue as to Parkinson’s misconception is given in both articles. In the Guardian, he says,
That’s not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office building are in use, factories are in production. That’s when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money.
And at the other article, he explains,
Daytime electricity prices have historically been the “cream” on the cake for electricity generators because that is when demand is usually the highest, and prices too.
But this idea of there being a difference between day and night energy demands — for Queensland, at least — is very much an oversimplification, as this graph of price and demand shows.
Here, there are not two features of demand throughout the day — night and day — but four: an early morning trough, a late morning peak, an afternoon trough, and an evening peak. It is true that many electricity suppliers offer day and night rates to consumers with the right equipment. But the idea that prices are highest in the day because that is when demand is greatest misunderstands this pricing strategy. Cheaper rates were offered at night because supply exceeded demand. There is an important difference. The backbone of an energy grid — the bit that does the heavy lifting — are its ‘baseload’ generators. These are typically large coal-fired plants, which cannot easily be ramped up and down to follow demand. (In fact, cyclying them up and down reduces their productivity over time). It would be more expensive to turn these generators off overnight than it is to keep them running.
The afternoon dip in demand is not quite as pronounced as the early morning dip. But it is not far off. Between 8.30 am and 1.30pm in Queensland on Wednesday 2 July, demand fell from 6699MW to 5222MW. During this time, however, the output from the region’s solar panels increased, as the sun rose in the sky. Then, as the sun begins its descent again, and so output from solar falls, demand rises to the evening peak. So solar supply happens to correspond inversely to demand. But Parkinson ignores the demand curve with four features, and uses the day-night understanding of demand, to make the claim that ‘The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head’.
What solar in fact turns on its head is a sensible grid design that responds to need. In the UK, renewable sources of energy take priority on the basis that this will displace carbon-emissions. This takes the form of subsidies for renewable generators and obligations on suppliers to take it. I understand the situation is the same in parts of Australia. So the grid now has a harder job to follow demand, having to cope with excess of unwanted midday output from solar, while keeping baseload generators online, so that demand can still be met in the middle of the night. So if Parkinson is right to claim that “Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete”, it would be because solar, in spite of the sun being free, costs more than coal, and it is given priority on the grid.
The fact that solar power caused such disruption to a grid for five minutes on a Wednesday afternoon does not mean that solar is capable of displacing coal, gas, oil or uranium. The only way Parkinson could make such a claim would be a situation in which the grid was free to choose the best suppliers and solar PV was not given any subsidy.
The extraordinary claims made by solar evangelists require very little numerical investigation to be shown as so much bullshit. The Guardian, for obvious instance, couldn’t wait to reproduce Parkinson’s claims, apparently without any fact-checking or scrutiny. Yet anyone with an internet connection and a copy of Microsoft Excel can show that not only does Parkinson make significant mistakes confusing times of day/night, and in misunderstanding of the structure of the electricity market and its prices, his interpretation lacks any sense of proportion. And even the specialist press was not far behind the Guardian. Even the experts in the renewable energy sector at Business Green do not have their critical faculties engaged when a positive slant on solar energy is possible. In other words, the broader green energy sector is not capable of keeping its own members in check. Hubris and hyperbole is informing the public debate that is predominantly presented as one divided between scientists and ‘deniers’.
This all echoes the claims made by Bloomberg New Energy Finance back in April. “CHINA’S 12GW SOLAR MARKET OUTSTRIPPED ALL EXPECTATIONS IN 2013″ claimed the news-agency-turned-green-lobbying outfit. But as I pointed out, this revolutionary step amounted to no more than “0.89 watts of net capacity per person”. It’s not even enough to charge a smartphone, much less power a dynamic, growing, industrial economy.
Solar evangelists have convinced themselves, it seems, that we’re on the brink, if not in the middle of a ‘solar revolution’. Yet the evidence suggests that solar PV in particular is at best nothing more than an expensive and possibly even dangerous hindrance to the normal operation of electricity grids, yet. It is like marketing fruit flavourings and sugary water as a ‘health drink’ — the contents doing the exact opposite of ‘what it says on the tin’.
Technological revolutions past have important characteristics. They typically positively transform our lives, or at least create the possibility of a new way of life. Even though they may create new problems, the problems they do create are preferable to the problems they have solved. We have first world problems where we once had third world problems. Second, they make it possible to produce more for less. There is no such thing as a technological revolution which makes things more expensive or less abundant.
Even if solar energy ‘works’, or at least becomes economic feasible, it will never produce a ‘revolution’. It cannot transform our lives for the better by virtue of becoming more abundant and cheaper. The indeterminacy of sunlight means solar generation is in fact likely to be an irritation for our way of life, just as it is an impediment to the safe operation of the grid. And this has implications for price. Even if the holy grail of energy storage were to be found, such that massive batteries could store surplus energy until it was needed, this would not likely reduce the price of energy by any significant margin, but increase it. And even if solar panels could be produced cheaply, the key commodity would not be the price of panels, but the price of land. Even if it were possible to locate trillions of solar panels where the cheapest real estate in the world can be found, that real estate would do what all sought-after real estate does. We would exchange our putative dependence on fossil fuels with dependence on something far more fickle: land. And a vast area of land, at that.
And all these technological developments, which solar evangelists promise us are, like the revolution, just around the corner, are only pertinent to a discussion about choice of technique in the future if we consider them in relation to other potential developments. Fusion, perhaps. More fission. More fusion-fission hybrids. These are my favourites, because they promise ever less dependence on natural processes or goods light sunlight and land, and their enormous potential is described by Einstein’s equation, not by the comparatively paltry amount of sunlight falling on an area of land at the equator at noon.
Let us compare pipe dreams, then. The following presentation from Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin suggests that the company will have produced a 100MW fusion reactor with a footprint of just 8 square metres by 2017, and will be ready for commercial development by the mid 2020s.
Remember that 8 square metres of solar panels could, even if they were 100% efficient, only produce 8kW at noon, at the equator, on a cloudless day. The Lockheed Martin application would be 12,500 times more powerful. Over the course of 24 hours, the Lockheed Martin application would produce 125,000 times as much energy as the solar panels. Returning to our future scenario in which the world’s ten billion people require 555,650 TWH… this requirement could be met by 634,304 fusion reactors, which would have a combined footprint of just five square kilometres. And they would be capable of working 24/7. They would be mobile, operating on or off the grid, according to demand. The could be used to produce electricity, of course, but also they could power ships, and desalinate and pump water to where it is needed. They could produce fuels for vehicles that are not yet able to run on electricity.
So why are the solar evangelists not jumping up and down for joy that something even better than sunlight may have just been discovered, which requires little more than seawater as a fuel? Why are climate bureaucracies all over the world not demanding subsidies for this zero-carbon source of power? Why aren’t green politicians promising that a real energy revolution is just around the corner? After all, Lockheed Martin’s plans are as well developed as solar energy is. Solar panels work in principle. In practice, they have yet to contribute anything useful.
Indeed, why is it that discussions about Lockheed Martin’s prototype and other reactor designs are more easily characterised as an optimistic but sober treatment of the facts, whereas solar zealots quickly lose control of their faculties when as little as a megawatt is added to the grid anywhere in the world?
I don’t mean to propose here that those of us who understand the value of energy start behaving like solar evangelists, and to start creating unrealistic expectations of Lockheed Martin’s development. The point is rather that the virtues of the technology itself are not enough to explain the solar evangelist’s excitement. Something else must be going on, because solar energy is, quite simply, not at all exciting in any respect.
What is that something? Is it madness? Is it simple dyscalculia? Is it even really solar power that the solar evangelists want?
I was surprised by Queensland’s demand curve — though perhaps not as surprised as Parkinson. My understanding of demand in the UK, at least was similar to his — that there is a peak and a trough once per 24 hour cycle. So I had a quick check of the UK’s demand curve.
This is interesting. It seems that the UK and Australia have dissimilar demand patterns — which is born out by data from the other Australian territories. On the other hand, the UK has a much larger population than the whole of Australia, let alone just one territory. Furthermore, it seems possible that, perhaps by virtue of its size and by the nature of its industries, the UK may be able to better shape the demand curve. This notion seems to be at least partly supported by this weekend’s demand curve:
NB the Y Axis does not start at zero — I’ve moved the graph down to emphasise the signal. But it does show a pronounced 4-feature curve, rather than the more sinusoidal pattern of weekday demand.
There is an interesting implication here. Whereas the emphasis of many greens is in ‘decentralised grids’, in reality, a centralised grid is much better able to absorb the fluctuation of solar output (and other renewables). In other words, solar needs coal, gas and uranium. Lots of it.
But Parkinson doesn’t think so.
The next step, of course, is for those households and businesses to disconnect entirely from the grid. In remote and regional areas, that might make sense, because the cost of delivery is expensive and in states such as Queensland and WA is massively cross-subsidised by city consumers.
In other words, from madness to suicide in one step.
It’s been nearly a year since this blog last took a look at Monbiot’s thinking. He used to be a favourite, epitomising the green movement’s excesses in each of his Guardian stories. But as useful as it is to see what goes on in the fantasy world that environmentalists live in, it is necessary not to credit them with too much influence. Monbiot’s accent, position on a broadsheet newspaper and style is all that separates him from the man wearing a The-End-is-Nigh sandwich board. Catastrophists are, in general, lonely, powerless, paranoid and daft — characteristics which are as much causes as they are symptoms of each other. Catastrophists disappear into themselves. Nonetheless, Monbiot’s ideas get printed in a national newspaper.
Monbiot has declared that ‘Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear‘. This is not Monbiot’s first epiphany…
If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own.
… His earlier turn-around was his grudging acceptance of nuclear power, which he had spent much of his life campaigning against. Like many other greens, he tore into his erstwhile comrades as ‘deniers’. But like his fellow traveller on some kind of road to a nuclear energy Damascus, Mark Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t really able to reflect deeply on the position he once held so strongly. But unlike Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t able to go as far as singing the praises of genetically engineered crops. Lynas was the victim of corporate propaganda, he complained. How quickly greens turn on each other with the terms they used for climate sceptics.
And Monbiot is not the first to realise that environmentalism is better at alienating than encouraging people. Way back in 2008, I posted this little clip of Caroline Lucas, who had suddenly realised that environmentalists lack a positive message.
Yet at the very same event, she couldn’t help but resort to the alarmism she now wanted to eschew in favour of a more optimistic message.
Lucas wanted to sustain her cake and eat it. But you cannot emphasise a positive message while blackmailing people with stories of catastrophe. Either we’re doomed, or we’re not. Without the doom, environmentalism means nothing at all. The point that this blog has made is that it is no coincidence that negative stories about ecological Armageddon seem to dominate a politically-sterile moment of history. Scare stories are how authorities legitimise themselves, and how political arguments are formulated in these inert times. Environmentalists claim to have transcended ‘ideology’, and have grounded themselves in ‘science’, but in fact epitomise the character of contemporary politics: too cowardly to commit to any principles or ideas; too vain to reflect on criticism; and utterly promiscuous with ‘facts’. ‘Science is a fig leaf.
What is it that such traits force people to do in the face of failure? Blame other people… Monbiot, again…
“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?” several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.
It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue”. People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.
This blog is in its eighth year of telling Monbiot that he emphasises threats, and pointing out that he is forced to use the language of threat because he cannot express a positive argument. But rather than listen to criticism from without the green camp, he preferred to sustain the myth of scientists-versus-deniers. So what of this theory, that Monbiot would reach more people, if only he could emphasis the jolly, fluffy and cuddly side of the doomsters’ credos?
Monbiot makes it clear: he doesn’t think that “climate breakdown” and “mass extinction” are no longer threats. He still thinks his purpose is “saving the planet”, as if he is some sort of holier-than-thou messiah who can promise us a place in paradise if only we wouldn’t squirm under his gentle, guiding hand.
But he realises he’s been quite annoying about it, which must be why we’re not listening to him. And that is a public relations problem. It is a matter of changing how he and his allies in the environmental movement communicate. Like a priest who feels he’s lost the the youth to dancing and wickedness, Monbiot thinks it’s about “changing the language” to be less “alienating”.
It never once occurs to him that his substance, not his style, might be the problem. Monbiot has on many an occasion been forced to renounce convictions he once firmly held. It is true that someone who is often wrong is not necessarily always wrong, but it can’t help his credibility.
Read the whole response, because it is excellent. I will pick up on just one point:
To Monbiot’s mind, repeatedly being proven wrong by both argument and history couldn’t possibly be why environmentalists lack credibility when they warn about threats. No, he thinks it is because the green left fails to heed “psychologists and cognitive linguists”.
Vegter’s point is spot on. And we should see in Monbiot’s appeal to ‘psychologists and cognitive linguists’ precisely the same impulse as the one that drove Stephan Lewandowsky et al to take issue with the structure of climate change deniers’ brains, rather than their argument.
The psychologising of sceptics in an attempt to explain the failure to ‘communicate’ the environmental message does not allow people in general — not just sceptics — to have made up their own mind. It is not unlike being told in an argument that the position you hold in opposition is not the consequence of your thinking about the matter at hand, but because some emotional trauma prevented the development of your rational or cognitive faculties. In fact it’s worse, because it patronises people who agree with the green premise as much as it patronises those who disagree: it says that all people are stupid, and simply need to be tickled with nice words like ‘tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves’, rather than presented with a substantive argument.
Greens are, of course, the first to stand up for Motherhood and Apple Pie. But it’s only later that we discover that there are too many mothers, they’re having too many babies, that the apples must be ‘organically-produced’, sustainably-sourced, and that the pie cannot be eaten, but must be saved for ‘future generations’. But it’s okay, because by not eating the pie, we won’t become obese, such are the benefits of environmentalism.
As I tried to discuss in the previous post, environmentalists think people are stupid. And they treat people as though they are stupid.
In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.
It is this treatment of people which makes environmentalism unpopular, and which causes it to see the natural world in terminal decline. And this runs throughout environmentalism’s thinking.
Another recent example of Monbiot’s writing shows the same anti-human logic at work…
It’s the great taboo of our age – and the inability to discuss the pursuit of perpetual growth will prove humanity’s undoing.
Monbiot is wrong twice. Scepticism of economic growth is not taboo. Everyone has been talking about it since ‘Affluenza’, and since the government launched various initiatives under the ‘happiness agenda’. And he’s wrong about ‘perpetual growth’, too:
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
It’s such a ‘taboo’ that even super rich bankers are talking about it…
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
And, having discovered the principle of compound growth, Monbiot pronounces:
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created.
On Monbiot’s view, ‘economics’ is just stuff taken from nature. More economic growth is more stuff taken from nature until there’s nothing left. Tim Worstall was on hand to correct him:
Think about GDP for a moment. It’s the calculation of all of the value added in the economy. It is not a calculation of the resources used. We do not say that 1 million tables were made and thus we’re richer by 1 million tables. We say that there 1 million tables made and we’re richer by the amount that a table is worth more than the resources we used to make that table. Value add is economic growth, not more stuff.
Greens are allergic to stuff because stuff is the stuff that the unwashed, unthinking masses are seemingly hypnotised by. On the green view, armies of zombie plebs blindly make their way to shopping malls to buy food, clothes and gadgets that they do not need, keeping the system tipping towards the inevitable destruction of the planet. Again: the point is not really that the planet is in peril; the point is the environmentalist’s contempt for the ordinary people and their needs and wants.
Worstall tells us all we need to know about George’s economics. Economic growth might even mean less stuff is used in the production of stuff as we work out more efficient ways to use more abundant materials. But Monbiot makes a bigger claim about human history.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
Monbiot reduces modernity to a pathology — ‘ideologies are mere subplots’.
The view that Monbiot offers can only be true if the coal dug itself out of the ground in industrial quantities, and forced us to burn it in machines that it designed for us.
It was in fact what Monbiot calls ‘ideologies’ that made the progress of the modern age possible. Coal, oil, and now gas, uranium, and whatever next, may be necessary for sustaining that progress. But industrialisation is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It took social organisation to produce the industrial revolution. Capitalism, in other words.
It was no use just having a coal mine if there was no one to mine it, nobody to work out how to use it, and no way of dividing the tasks between people, rightly or wrongly. The coal had been there for ever, as far as humans were concerned. And Wikpedia claims that coal has been burnt by people since 3000BC. It took almost 5,000 years more human history for an industrial revolution to occur, and for knowledge and for institutions that organise knowledge and labour to develop.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that Monbiot hates that history. He sees it as a terminal condition — a pathology. It is only a history of zombies, slavishly dancing to a tune called by coal and oil. Humanity itself is ‘unsustainable’. Beset by some kind of secular, ecological version of original sin, it would be better if we suffered our condition in lives characterised by subsistence, in a ‘sustainable’ natural order.
Far from having to ‘ransack the hidden corners of the planet’ to find resources, we have discovered more and more beneath our feet. Gas in rock. Almost unlimited energy in heavy metals. Integrated circuits in nothing more than sand. Highly resistant crops from the modification of DNA of weaker organisms. But Moniot is agin ‘em. He gives humans mere bit-parts in his account of their history, as if he were above it and them, their roles being as inevitable as the unfolding of the laws of thermodynamics.
What better counter to the funk of such a Fall-obsessed fool exists than the author of The Ascent of Man, again, Jacob Bronowski.
Warning… This is a VERY long post! You may want to skip straight to the conclusion, labelled in bold.
This blog has always been interested much more in questions about what environmentalism is, rather than in the scientific claims made by environmentalists. One could argue forever about what lines on charts ‘say’ without ever becoming the wiser about what to do about them. The argument here is that in order to know what ‘science says’, you have to know what you have told it, and too much telling has been smuggled into scientific claims about the environment.
The problem is, environmentalism is rarely presented as a political idea in the way that, for example, the nature of capital has been discussed between Smith, Marx and their descendants. Environmentalism’s moral argument tends these days to come from projecting some trend or other into the future, to create imperatives in the present: if you drive your 4×4 today, your children’s’ children’s’ children’s’ children will suffer and die. Another form of environmentalism that looks less like blackmail, but which is consequently less useful to political campaigning is the notion that there is value in the natural world, independently of our being there to value it: that a river might have intrinsic rights to be as it is, free from our interference. The latter form of environmentalism is more nuts, but it is perhaps more honest.
The blackmail form of environmentalism leaves very little room for nuance, which is why contemporary environmentalism hasn’t really needed philosophers or political thinkers to shape the movement. ‘Science’ does the heavy lifting that, in other movements, have been done by branches of philosophy, such as ethics, and metaphysics. All it needed was scientists to make their discoveries, and for a few journalists to announce “it’s worse than previously thought”. Once you know that the End is Nigh, (or nigh enough), all you need to do to do the right thing is stop it. This is a shame, because it’s reduced debates about the environment to debates about lines on charts and the circumstances of their creation. The climate debate has descended to science. It hasn’t had any light shone on it by science.
A few philosophers have waded into the debate, however. Back in 2007, this blog noted that AC Grayling’s distaste for oil had led him to produce a less than rational argument. “…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?”, asked Grayling, channelling the contemporary narrative of the time that wars between men are ‘about oil’, the implication being that ‘alternative energy’ sources existed in equal or greater abundance than crude, but that somehow the substance itself turns men into mad addicts. A more easily observed phenomenon is that environmentalism makes very clever men say very stupid things.
In 2008, I reviewed The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who was at the time working our of Cardiff University — an institution that seems to have attempted to identify itself with climate policy. A collection of more favourable reviews can be read at Garvey’s blog. I found it to be a hollow contribution to philosophy — an attempt to make an argument for ‘equality’ in environmental terms, without ever really interrogating environmentalism. That is neither ‘ethics’ nor philosophy; it is just preaching. To a choir.
Garvey tells us, ‘the larger moral problems won’t really bite unless you know something about our prospects, the prospects for us as a species, in the face of climate change. Those predictions are not rosy’. But without the dark vision made plausible by science, Garvey would not be able to make a case for such crude moral calculations – goodies, baddies, tragedies, poverty, victims and culprits – all of which act to displace from the discussion, a political understanding of equality. So much of Garvey’s view of the world depends on the science providing the most hideous nightmare, from which there is no escape, that it’s hard not to wonder if, in spite of his claim that there is more to his argument, the science is the ‘whole of it’, and is little more than storytelling.
The moral philosopher that needs a total catastrophe as the foundation of his moral argument probably isn’t doing any philosophy at all. The catastrophe is a fig leaf. I bumped into Garvey at an event where Nigel Lawson was introducing his (then) new book. But Garvey didn’t want to talk, and walked off, muttering ‘I don’t talk about science’ — a strange reaction from a man who edits a blog called ‘Talking Philosophy‘, the sister project of The Philosophy Magazine.
A post on Talking Philosophy was linked to by Shub Niggurath on Twitter. The post is by Rupert Read, reader of philosophy at that infamous climate institution, UEA, and a Green Party activist who blogs at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/.
At Talking Philosophy, Read claims to explain ‘The real reason why libertarians become climate-deniers‘. This gives us another chance to see what — if anything — is going on in the philosophical ground of environmentalism. And its an undignified start…
We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. …But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.
Straight from the horses mouth: contemporary society’s material expectations are bizarre — people living in the dark ages say so. This is followed by the familiar motif, ‘existential threats to our collective survival’ — the moral philosopher as blackmailer, again. The demand for individual freedom is dangerous, says read.
But is it true that ‘We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger’? Read confuses ‘the demand for individual freedom’ as the availability of stuff — supermarkets and cheap clothes. We should note that in many countries characterised by very strict religious laws, one can nonetheless shop almost endlessly. And in spite of the abundance of shops here in the UK, other individual freedoms have been eroded. We’re freer to buy things, perhaps. But try lighting up a cigarette in a pub. We may be wealthier, but the state is arguably far more extended into the private realm than ever before, my favourite example of which is the ‘happiness agenda‘, in which the UK government began its attempt to take on responsibility for our emotional lives.
It is telling that Read conceives of shopping and liberty as equivalents. But rumours of ‘consumerism’ driving hoards of plebs unchecked through shopping centres have little foundation. The objection seems to be that poorer people can afford cheaper clothing and cheaper good quality food, not kept in their place by the necessities which trapped peasants and serfs in their condition. Read says the end of arbitrary tyranny is a good thing… but does he mean it?
Can he really mean it if, first, he thinks of liberty as libertarians conceive of it as meaning little more than consumer indulgence, and second, if he thinks abundance is the enemy of ‘solidarity and sociability’, as though austerity would unite the Nation once more? The question here that Read fails to reflect on is the possibility that his desire for what he calls ‘solidarity and sociability’ isn’t in fact a desire for order as only he prefers it — that he and his movement have been unable to put forward an argument for ‘solidarity and sociability’, and thus descend to blackmail in order to achieve the next best thing: obedience in lieu of assent. More charitably, Read, feeling alienated by contemporary society and its lack of meaning, experiences the material world in crisis. Either way, the impulse is narcissistic. And it is this failure to reflect on their own arguments that seems to characterise environmentalists’ attempts to set out their agenda.
Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.
Liberty is not a straightforward concept. And so libertarianism is a broad category of thought, not all of which is formulated as libertarianism as such — people who identify as libertarians hail from left, right, and against politics. But the thing that libertarians would most likely emphasise in response to some incursion of this putative rights to enjoy consumer society is not the ‘right’ to consume, but the basis on which such an incursion was legitimised. If you say to me, “Don’t eat that burger”, my reply is not “it’s my right to eat it”, but “what’s it got to do with you?” The libertarian does not need a ‘right’ to eat a burger; he doesn’t think you have a right to prevent him.
It is perhaps a subtle difference. But the Moral philosopher seems to want to render in black and white what are actually nuanced ideas. And this creates a second, bigger problem for Read. As well as lacking insight into his own argument, he does not give a faithful account of the ideas he wants to scrutinise — a fatal failure for a philosopher.
Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.
But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.
So which is it? Is it the preamble, which allows that some libertarians demonstrate the virtues of ‘intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm’? Or are libertarians, as the caveat proclaims, ‘to a man‘ deluded into thinking that they are ‘radical and different’ when they are all ‘exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion’? It cannot be both.
And what are these beliefs? Were they in fact so dogmatically-held, it would be easier to take issue with the beliefs than the act of believing them; Read turns liberarianism from an -ism into a character flaw. The moral philosopher takes a diversion into sociology…
Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…).
Here we see the problem of Read failing to interrogate his own perspective fully emerging. The ‘social and ecological limits to growth’ are not manifesting in reality. Indexmundi reports global GDP as follows
Only a few months in the last 20 years show negative growth. This has been discussed previously as ‘the environmentalists paradox‘. The world is richer, and its population living longer and healthier lives than ever before. The limits that Read asserts exist in the present do not exist in fact.
In order to agree with Read, we need to presuppose that limits have been encountered. But it is the tendency of environmentalists like Read to see problems that certainly do exist, such as poverty, as encounters with a limit. In this they make the mistake of naturalising problems, as though were the weather in some far off place slightly more stable, it would give more comfort to the poor. So much for the environmentalist’s emphasis on ‘solidarity and sociability’ — he only thinks he owes someone thousands of miles away a commitment not to make his weather slightly worse. And worse, he thinks that the problems experienced by poorer people are problems transmitted by the weather.
And Read continues to fail to reproduce the libertarian argument faithfully, wondering how it was that the ideology became more popular in the wake of the banking crisis and economic recession. “too much license” was “granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions”, says Read scratching his head. But that was precisely the point made by libertarians.
Just as Read did not understand that the libertarian objection to the injunction “don’t eat that burger” was not his assertion to a right, but a questioning of the legitimacy of the injunction, Read misunderstands the libertarian’s distaste for the regulation of financial institutions. At issue is not the freedom of banks to do as they will such that, unconstrained, they cause some crisis or other. The libertarian objection was that the crisis was caused by government’s proximity to financial institutions. The loudest complaints about the bailouts came from libertarians, one of the most popular arguments being that governments and banks are in cahoots, made possible by fractional reserve banking — legal counterfitting, on the libertarian perspective — to do the bidding of rich and powerful people. No libertarian I am aware of argues that financial institutions should not be the subject of regulation and the law, but on the contrary that financial institutions should be subject to strict regulation, not merely regulation, changed according to the whims of the government.
Read cannot complain that the libertarian argument is hard to find. Here is the first Youtube video I found when searching with the terms “ron paul” and “banking crisis”…
… And he counted libertarians amongst his own friends, who are victims of some dogma. Yet he cannot even identify the dogma to reproduce it to criticise it. He insists that these libertarians are impervious to his reasoning with them, and yet he manifestly has not heard their argument.
But the more revealing thing is Read’s claim that the popularity of libertarianism is driven by the ideology of the moment, with its “alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual”.
I argue precisely the opposite: that the prevalent mode of politics is not one which celebrates the “specialness and uniqueness of the individual”, but on the contrary, has taken aim at it. The evidence of this is not found in shopping malls and the High Street, but in the foundations of post-democratic political institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. If shopping is a distraction from the Good Life, people in shops are a bigger distraction for the moral or political philosopher. It is telling that Read looks for politics in the place you buy your shoes and supper, not in the organisations which in fact decide our futures. And on this point, Read says,
In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)
Read brilliantly — albeit unwittingly — crystallises the phenomenon which in fact has driven UKIP’s ascendency: the arrogance of a political class (in which I include academics who have prostituted their positions to policy-relevant ‘research’) who proclaim that the public are better off with them, but who do not trust the public with the right to make the choice to vote against them. Leaving aside the claims about UKIP being socially regressive/reactionary (they’re not) and their flat tax (which isn’t their policy), Read thinks that anyone who voted for UKIP, but who isn’t rich, is stupid. Indeed, the European Union thinks people are stupid. It thinks people are too stupid to appoint national governments through the ballot box. The vote for UKIP was a vote against the accretion of power away from democratic institutions, and all that goes with it. The possibility that people may have judged that, for the time being, seemingly progressive labour rights might be worth foregoing for the sake of a greater degree of political autonomy has not occurred to Read. He doesn’t credit people with the sense to make that decision.
Last week, similar comments to Read’s were made in The Conversation. ‘Right-wing flames that have licked Europe’, claimed Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Ian H Robertson, were ‘fanned by lack of education’.
Need for closure tends to produce what is known as “essentialist thinking” – which means creating simple categories – for example “blacks” – members of whom automatically have characteristics associated with the category. This easy and quick thinking habit avoids the need for any more complex analysis of individuals: if high NFC people are faced with contrary evidence to their quick categorization – eg a member of the out-group who is better educated than they are – they experience this as very uncomfortable and tend to shy away from it.
High NFC individuals are also very attracted to authoritarian ideologies because such ideologies satisfy their deepest psychological needs for certainty, quick solutions and unchanging, permanent answers.
Education builds IQ and IQ reduces prejudice – though obviously not on the part of some bright but ruthless far right party leaders. Educational also helps people think more abstractly, and if you get someone to think about a problem in more abstract terms, their prejudice towards the out-group is temporarily diminished.
Heav’n save us from ideologues bearing simple categories and their psychological need for certainty! That the idea of such an instrumental use of education can be uttered without blushes might indicate that the individual isn’t quite the first order of politics. People are stupid — they must be educated.
So not only does Read not even understand his own argument — much less advance it coherently — and not only does he fail to reproduce the argument of stupid people labouring under some dogma, he, like Robertson doesn’t even understand the context of the apparent debate between him and them.
This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…
It’s a big claim. But the reality is somewhat underwhelming. Libertarians like to emphasise their commitment to truthfulness and objectivity, observes Read. But a commitment to truth is a constraint on the individual, whose freedom is paramount.
I don’t think I have yet met a libertarian who has asserted the right to believe that the moon is made of cheese in spite of his knowledge that it is mainly rock (with a little bit of cheese). Certainly, I have met libertarians of a more Randian bent, who lay it on a bit thick sometimes. But Read is just as guilty here, as any adherent of any ideology of laying it on thick.
Note the conspicuous absence in Read’s argument of what Truth has been denied. He says the libertarian denies ‘limits to growth’, but the argument is about ‘denial’ of climate change. And there is good historic and scientific evidence that the limits to growth thesis has been wrong since its inception, as evidenced in no small part by the continued existence of England, which Ehrlich predicted would have been destroyed by now.
This lack of precision in Read’s argument is a case of what I call a a consensus without an object. Although a libertarian might well agree that CO2 absorbs/scatters IR radiation, and that this will produce a warming effect, and agree that this effect could cause problems, and could even agree that it requires the intervention of some agency, he doesn’t have to agree with Read that this represents either a global catastrophe in the making, or a palpable ‘limit to growth’. Read gets to claim as the consensus position whatever suits his argument, without attention to the actual substance of the consensus, or its putative denial. He uses climate change and ‘limits to growth’ interchangeably.
This cannot be over-stated. The actual consensus on climate change is largely inconsequential, and does not yet include either the claim that any significant Nth-order detrimental effect of climate change has been detected, or that any projected consequence can only be addressed through mitigation, rather than through measures that I wouldn’t even call ‘adaptation’. Most future and extant problems that are attributed to climate change are problems that would not exist in a wealthy (or wealthier) economy. But growth, says Read, is impossible, it has reached its physical limit. And in this move he reveals that the apparent scientific conclusion of the ‘limits to growth’ thesis is in fact the premise of its political argument. Read takes it for granted. That does not make the prognostications that Read takes at face value wrong, but it does raise a question mark over what he claims as unimpeachable truth. One can make the point that somebody standing at the edge of the sea at low tide faces death if he does not move. But he has legs and can walk, and likely has the will to survive. The projection is correct, scientifically sound, True. But it is not the whole story, and worse, takes competing accounts of what is going on, and what could happen off the table, to force us into a course of action.
This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”
Read does not know his own movement’s history very well. It was Garret Hardin who suggested that private property could solve the problem of environmental destruction. In the tragedy of the commons, Hardin argued that privatising common land was the best measure against over-exploitation by ‘free-riders’. Hardin’s theory is the ground for cap-and-trade and similar systems. So in this important respect, Read imagines a philosophical left-right divide between libertarians and environmentalists that simply does not exist (though may exist in others). In fact, it is therefore remarkable, in these green times, that more libertarians haven’t attempted to use the environment to advance their views.
On Read’s view, the libertarian imagines that he has a ‘right’ to his own scientific knowledge just as I have a ‘right’ to a burger, which is trampled on by scientist, whose science otherwise demands deference. This is his ‘gotcha’. But it is weak, in part because Read again fails to reproduce the libertarian’s argument, but more problematically this time, forgets to check his own position. The libertarian’s apparent denial forgets the proposition which has been rejected: Read’s claim that there exist ‘limits to growth’.
In other words, on the libertarian point of view, Read over-states the interdependence of people with the planet’s natural processes. And this is the real reason libertarians seem to ‘deny’ climate change (though they mostly don’t).
Recall that the environmentalist moral philosopher holds the public in low esteem. Compare this with the libertarian’s estimation of the far more robust individual. As I have pointed out previously, the low estimation of the ordinary human is coincident with an emphasis on the environment, and the rejection of both happens for good reasons. For instance, Chris Mooney proposed a while back, that there may be a biological basis for political preference, which, in the main, forced those of a more conservative persuasion to reject science. They were blinded by ideology, he said. I replied,
The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-’ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.
In other words, Mooney’s conservative and Read’s libertarian seem to have a better understanding that humans create wealth. (And for that matter, so too did many Marxists). On the limits to growth perspective, humans merely take wealth from nature. What Read describes as ‘interdependence’ between ourselves and with the natural world, isn’t as much a departure from the limits of consumerism, but their fullest possible expression: we are just consumers, not producers or creators. Moreover, rather than putting us into a more healthy relationship with each other (and the natural world) than is permitted in consumer society (to the extent that it exists), Read conceives of relationships as merely metabolic. Read wants to take you out of the consumer-capitalist machine, and make you a mere component of Spaceship Earth, which only he gets to drive.
In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.
But read disagrees:
This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself. . . Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.
Read’s conflation of ‘relativistic’ and ‘subjectivistic’ is interesting. Postmodern philosophy has been associated with relativism, especially in ethics. But largely at the expense of subjectivity. Relativism seems to deny that truth can be located. But science proceeds by eliminating, rather than denying subjective effects. You can’t do science without subjectivity. Put simply, differences between subjective experiences can be reconciled, whereas relativistic effects are seemingly insurmountable. As this account of postmodern philosopher Lyotard explains,
Like many other prominent French thinkers of his generation (such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze), Lyotard develops critiques of the subject and of humanism. Lyotard’s misgivings about the subject as a central epistemological category can be understood in terms of his concern for difference, multiplicity, and the limits of organisational systems. For Lyotard the subject as traditionally understood in philosophy acts as a central point for the organisation of knowledge, eliminating difference and disorderly elements. Lyotard seeks to dethrone the subject from this organisational role, which in effect means decentring it as a philosophical category. He sees the subject not as primary, foundational, and central, but as one element among others which should be examined by thought. Furthermore, he does not see the subject as a transcendent and immutable entity, but as produced by wider social and political forces.
He calls into question the powers of reason, asserts the importance of nonrational forces such as sensations and emotions, rejects humanism and the traditional philosophical notion of the human being as the central subject of knowledge, champions heterogeneity and difference, and suggests that the understanding of society in terms of “progress” has been made obsolete by the scientific, technological, political and cultural changes of the late twentieth century.
Accordingly, on many contemporary pseudo-scientific and scientistic rants in the postmodern era, subjective experience is merely an illusion (e.g. Dawkins, Dennet, Blackmore) — a difficult problem with the question ‘who the **** do you think you are?’, kicked into the long grass — reflecting the genetic determinism of Mooney, and the nasty near-eugenics of Robertson. And of course, Read. The belittling of individuals and their faculties… subjects… is very much a postmodern phenomenon, in which the belittlers grasp for authority. So the really remarkable irony is that Read continues:
The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.
“Postmodern” has become a pejorative used to diminish critics of ‘science’. But Lyotard in fact anticipates much about the climate debate. The postmodern condition, explained Lytoard, is ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’, noting the displacement of religion, Marxism, and other encompassing ‘narratives’ in capitalist economies by science — ‘information’ had become the principal commodity. Metanararatives are, after all, what drives the thinking subject.
Isn’t this what we see in Read, and, in the previous posts, Paul Nurse, eschewing ‘ideology and politics’, in favour of ‘science’, concerned about all the little people, vulnerable to ideologues? And ditto Read, who sees no more in subjectivity than the slavish impulse to go shopping, driven by the consumerist ideology of our time, ignorant of the reality which looms over it. On Read’s view, we’re all ‘unthinking products’ in search of product. And don’t we see in Nurse and Read desperate arguments about whose information is the most legitimate, and should thus drive policy-making (pka, politics)?
But none of this is as remarkable an irony as Read’s closing words…
It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.
The real object of Read’s ire is disobedience. Notice that, in his rant, he does not produce a single instance of ‘the reality of climate change’ being denied at all, let alone in the words of a single libertarian, much less all of libertarianism, in all its forms. We have to take it for granted that the object of the denial is true, and that the deniers denied the object. Not once does he let libertarianism speak for itself… Not even a quotation mark litters his argument that climate-change denying libertarians cannot think for themselves. It is not obedience to reality that Read is demanding, but obedience to scientific authority — science as an institution, not science as a process through which ‘reality’ — the material world — can begin to be understood. God forbid that the un-anointed should be allowed to use the scientific method for themselves.
There is no ‘philosophical sensibility’ about Read’s argument. If there were, we would see an actual dialogue between Read and libertarianism, on the subject of climate change and limits to growth. The ‘reality’, or ‘truth’ to which he demands we submit is not scientific fact, but a presupposition of political ecology, that there exist ‘limits’. Note furthermore, that these limits are not equivalent to ‘climate change is happening’, but a far-off consequence of climate change, if it is happening, and even then, only if we take the remaining precepts of environmentalism for granted.
We see this often in the climate debate: many figures, from Cook and his 97%, through to John Gummer restyled as Lord Deben, pronouncing on ‘deniers’ and what they deny, without ever actually taking any notice of what was being ‘denied’ — the consensus without an object. And we see it so often that I think we can now call this other-isation of ‘deniers’ an essential characteristic of contemporary environmentalism’s argument:
* The ‘deniers’ are never identified.
* No account of the deniers’ arguments is ever given.
* The object of the deniers’ denial is never explained.
It’s like a debate, but without an interlocutor. Socrates in solitary confinement. A dialectic with no antithesis. And from that, we can establish:
* Environmentalism needs denial to exist.
* The deniers do not exist.
* The deniers are simply figments of environmentalists’ ideology or imagination.
* Environmentalists pick fights with phantom deniers to avoid actual debate.
If it doesn’t matter what the arguments are — be they scientific or ‘ideological’, right or wrong… If there is no dialogue, then there is no philosophising about what denialism is. There is only some kind of academic onanism. Meanwhile, a lot has been revealed about environmentalism, and the state of academic philosophy.
Read does not want assent to scientific fact. An entire legion of morons could give their assent to Read’s claim, to qualify as having ‘truly philosophical sensibility’ without him chucking them out of the philosophers’ circle jerk for not, in fact, having the gift of ‘intellectual autonomy in its true sense’. Anyone can assent to ‘reality’ without actually thinking about it. Read wants obedience.
People who want obedience hate liberty. It’s that simple. They see people acting on their own thoughts as a symptom of society breaking down, not a society made up of individuals cooperating and negotiating with each other autonomously, who have rejected the moral philosopher’s bogus imperative for good reasons. And in the case of environmentalists like Read, that sense of breakdown emerges in his views on the environment. It’s an infantile reaction to a world that does not conform to his wishes. Finding the reality hard to accept, he cannot tell the difference between the end of the world and his failure to assert himself over others. And there’s nothing that people with a sense of entitlement hate more than being challenged.
Angry, condescending academics are nothing new. And ridding the world of them would not make it a better place. But the Academy had a culture — was a culture — in which pig-ignorant angry, condescending academics could be kept in check, either by squabbles with each other, or through institutions like peer-review or through criticism from more reasonable academics. Either as cause or effect, academe seems no longer able to foster debate, especially on the issue of climate change. I suggest that one reason for this is the extension of University departments into governance. That’s not to say that academia has nothing to say about the organisation and functioning of government and society, but that there must be some principle, not unlike the separation of powers, which, once abandoned, turns those who can speak truth to power or hold it to account, merely become its instruments.
As we have seen with other UK academics and their departments — Lewandowsky and Cardiff University psychologists have been discussed here at length — the academic has turned his sights at the public in general and climate sceptics in particular. We have seen, in other words, mediocre academics make big names for themselves — ‘impact’ — by objectifying or pathologising impediments to official agendas, using the resources of the academy. Just as Lewandowsky couldn’t take the perspectives of climate sceptics in good faith — he had to probe inside their minds, using a shoddy internet survey — Read does not take issue with the arguments actually offered by actual climate change-denying libertarians, he takes issue with his own fantasy libertarian, abandoning all the rigour and practice that the discipline he belongs to has established over the course of millennia, to score cheap rhetorical points.
In a number of cases, there seems to be good evidence that the academy’s involvement with environmentalism seems to show that it has become dominated by contempt for the public, and hostility to interlocutors, even those within the academy. Like some kind of anti-proletarian Cultural Revolution, counter-revolutionaries are denounced, and orthodoxies — like Read’s weird limits-to-growth anti-capitalism — established. To anticipate Lewandowsky-esque criticism that this is conspiracy ‘ideation’, the point here is to say if only there were a green Mao, with a Little Green Book… There would then be some discipline to the green campaigning in academia, which could, in turn be engaged with, or even better, engage with its critics. But instead of environmentalism as a political philosophy or ‘ideology’ as such, we seem to see environmentalism as a phenomenon in which putative experts in fact eschew such discipline as it applies to them. This gives the lie to the Philosopher Kings. The Likes of Read, Lewandowsky and all those Consensus Police don’t seem to elevate the academy as an institution which is as good for wider society as much as they seem to think that academics are entitled to rule. They have convinced themselves utterly that without them, the world will surely fall apart. But their emotional sensitivity to criticism suggests that such a view is not grounded in fact, and that what is at stake is their own tenuous hold. Like a paranoid tyrant — like Stalin, perhaps — nervous political power lashes out at the threats it perceives, real or not.
Here is Read’s explanation for his failure to win a seat at the recent European elections, and his party’s failure to increase their share of the vote.
I blame the tiny handful of multi-millionaires who bankroll the Party that shall remain nameless, and the national media for giving them bucketloads of coverage while ignoring the rise of the Green Party in the opinion polls during the campaign. I hope that once people realise what the Party that shall remain nameless actually stands for they will turn away from it in disgust, and turn to the Green Party, which offers a positive alternative to the old, failed parties.
It looks like Read wants to blame millionaires — Boo! Hiss! Millionaires!. But look deeper at the logic of the argument, and what it in fact says is that the voting public are stupid, and have been hoodwinked. This contempt is central to environmentalism, which explains why it suffers, even when it condescends to testing itself through democratic processes. And it explains why environmentalism is inclined to catastrophism. And that explains why environmentalists hate liberty. ‘Reality’ has nothing to do with it. The cause is misanthropic narcissism.
The previous post here generated a bit of Twitter twitchiness from one of the contributors to Horizon’s 50th anniversary celebration — Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and TV presenter, Alice Roberts. A somewhat partial account of the exchanges was compiled on Storify by a Twitter troll, and can be seen here. Roberts was upset that my post had accused the Royal Society and the producers of Horizon of a conspiracy, and having an ‘agenda’.
This kind of passive-aggressive argumentation is another of the frustrating things, which is not unique to the climate debate, but finds particular expression in it. I criticised two public institutions, but the criticism is taken personally by one of their members. Twitter is not a nuanced medium, so the discussion — such as it was — descended into the wrongs of accusing people of having an ‘agenda’. I did not quite realise that Roberts had such a problem with the word ‘agenda’, which she had introduced, until too late. I tried to explain that it isn’t a helpful word, that it was her word, and that it doesn’t really explain what I was saying in the article. So here is another attempt, for Roberts’ benefit.
In fact, I hadn’t really criticised Roberts. She had pointed out that, ‘It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology’. I agreed, ‘Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born.’ But I didn’t think it was interesting enough just to note that the tone of Horizon has changed, reflecting shifting attitudes as though they were just a spontaneous transformation of no more than consumer (i.e. viewer) tastes. There is much more reflected in this transformation that Roberts seems willing to admit, and there are a great deal of ‘whys’ that should help to explain it.
For instance, one of my favourite historical moments with which I like to compare contemporary thinking on science and its role in society is Kennedy’s ‘Moon Landing’ speeches. Today’s ‘moon landing’ is said to be the issue of climate change…
The science of climate change is the moon landing of our day. This is idealism in a technical language. The scientists and the idealists will, once again, be the same people. The discoveries in the laboratory will be matters of life and death. Nothing could be more vital, nothing could be more exciting. Tony Blair, November, 2006.
That to me is the starkest demonstration of the change in society’s relationship with science: from the technological optimism of the post war era, through the pessimism of the 1970s, and on to the narcissism of the early 21st century. It says something that the moon landing is the bench mark — the thing that world leaders struggling for a legacy strive for, rather than exceed. So Blair (though he was not alone) is forced to create a pastiche of Kennedy. “Look, this is my Moon-Landing speech”, he tells us. He can reinvent the moment, unite the nation, Be the One.
This is not to put Kennedy on a pedestal. There is no doubting that, as much as Kennedy emphasised scientific and technological progress, the moon mission was, from its inception, deeply political, if for no other reason than the fact that it was rooted in perhaps the deepest geopolitical and ideological divide in history. Had Blair been a politician in 1960s USA, rather than in late 1990s UK, he would not have had to try so hard (and fail) to reinvent the circumstances that Kennedy faced — climate change as moon landing and the War on Terror as the Cold War. And we can only guess at what Kennedy might have done if he only had men in caves and foreign strains of influenza to deal with — it would naive to believe that the project to put a man on the moon was, As Kennedy claimed, channelling George Mallory, ‘because it was there’. The end in sight was not just human footprints on the moon for the sake of it, but variously concerned with global and domestic political and strategic matters, not least of which was a grand projet for the sake of an administration. But it was a giant leap, nonetheless. Blair continued setting out his far more modest leaps:
The Government’s Foresight programme which sets an agenda for future action on science is working out new strategies in flood and coastal defence, exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum; in cyber-trust and crime prevention, in addiction and drugs, the detection and identification of infectious disease, tackling obesity, sustainable management of energy and mental well-being.
The way in which politicians pitch and hitch themselves to science reveals much about the politics and ‘ideology’ of the era. (NB, I do not use ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’ interchangeably.) Kennedy’s aim for the moon and Blair’s emphasis in microbes, addicts, fat people, happiness and sustainability can’t be taken at face value. No doubt those priorities became those leaders’ policies, which is to say became items on their ‘agenda’. But there is a deeper meaning of the word ‘ideology’, which isn’t captured by either ‘politics’ or ‘agenda’. Why was Blair concerned with overweight and unhappy people, germs and sustainability where Kenendy was concerned with the lunar landing? It isn’t as simple as simply detecting that people are getting fatter and sadder, or that some virus or other is on the march, and it’s not enough to say that politicians respond to matters arising from without, alerted by researchers.
For example, the putative rise in obesity, in eras where poverty and its diseases were far more prevalent, would have been seen as a Good Thing. Food, glorious food… Even if we take it at face value that “rates of obesity are rising”, as it is often claimed, it is not axiomatically something that ought to concern the government of the day, but might be the responsibility of the owners of the mouths that food is being shoved into. What business of the state’s is our ‘mental well being’, really? In order to make our internal lives, and relative abundance — rather than scarcity — an issue for government, a broader shift in the relationship between the state and individuals needs to occur. Ditto other problems of affluent industrial society that seem to present challenges to government — mass transit and infectious diseases, climate change, and cyber-crime — seem to make the political establishment as hostile to development and economic growth as it is to the distinction between the public and private.
There was no ‘agenda’ as such that intends to alter the balance of responsibilities between individuals and government. But that was in the thinking of the UK government and the direction of its policies nonetheless. And it is not enough to say simply that scientists, with no particular attachment to ‘the agenda’ merely observe and report things like an increase in obesity, or potential threats like infectious disease and climate change. Scientists are not simply highlighting new outbreaks of flu, climate change, expanding waistlines and unhappiness, and the rest, because ‘they are there’. They have likely always been there. And more importantly, there is an extent to which things are found when they are sought. If not sad, fat, potential victims of bird flu, then some other issue would be there, playing the same role.
The ground on which the discussion with Roberts stands is not a landscape with a clearly delineated ‘science’ at one end and ‘politics and ideology’ at the other, as Paul Nurse desired. There are no straight lines here.
Kennedy’s ambition stands in contrast to Blair’s much lower horizons. Giving the former speech the benefit of the doubt, it aimed to expand the possibilities of humanity — a ‘giant leap for mankind’. Blair’s speech promised to protect us from ourselves — even including our emotional selves. This reflects Blair’s communitarian politics and ‘ideology’. There was no ideological battle for him, in which ideas about humanity were contested publicly and globally; those battles were over, and now people merely needed to be managed — saved from themselves, and from things that ordinary people cannot see. This is the transformation that is, with sufficient perspective, visible in politics and its relationship with science, but which is invisible to scientists, generally. That ideological shift is one in which ‘risk’ has become a central concept, where there were once contests about which principles society should organise itself around. That is not to hark back to some golden age of democracy, but to point out that a change has occurred, right or wrong, and to suggest that it should be interrogated.
This is not some fanciful, climate-denier-politico-waffle. Take it straight from the horse’s mouth:
Policy-making is usually about risk management.Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making.
In Uncertainty in science and its role in climate policy, Lenny Smith and the Blair Government’s climate economist, Nicholas Stern attempt to give this form of politics some justification in the face of questions about ‘uncertainty’. The precautionary principle allows risks — which could be zero or merely theoretical risks — to dominate political decision-making. Say Stern and Smith:
Scientiﬁc speculation, which is often deprecated within science, can be of value to the policy-maker as long as it is clearly labelled as speculation. Given that we cannot deduce a clear scientiﬁc view of what a 5◦C warmer world would look like, for example, speculation on what such a world might look like is of value if only because the policy-maker may erroneously conclude that adapting to the impacts of 5◦C would be straightforward. Science can be certain that the impacts would be huge even when it cannot quantify those impacts. Communicating this fact by describing what those impacts might be can be of value to the policy-maker. Thus, for the scientist supporting policy-making, the immediate aim may not be to reduce uncertainty, but ﬁrst to better quantify, classify and communicate both the uncertainty and the potential outcomes in the context of policy-making. The immediate decision for policy-makers is whether the risks suggest a strong advantage in immediate action given what is known now.
Notice also, that the business of politics, is now called ‘policy-making’, and is “informed” by scientists, speculating. We all know the truth of what Stern and Smith say. When scientists speculate — and they often speculate wildly — it does not come ‘clearly labelled’ as speculation. It gets presented as fact. Notice, furthermore, that Smith and Stern do not chose, say, a 1 or 2 degree rise in temperature, but a whopping 5 degrees. Worst still is that after speculating that 5 degrees is plausible, scientists are invited to speculate about the effects of 5 degrees. And then on the effects of the effects of 5 degrees. A cascade of speculation emerges — an unleashing of the environmental imagination — in which the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism is unleashed: neither an ‘agenda’ as such, nor as coherent programme of ideas, but all of the unstated presuppositions, prejudices and mythology of green thought, made flesh in a science fiction story.
One does not have to look far for evidence of this in effect. In the latest Horizon episode, discussed in the previous post, the premise of malthusianism was evident through three of the stories presented in the episode: there are too many of us, we fly too much, we are running out of space to grow food, we are running out of water. They were presented as facts. But they were speculation, from a seemingly empirical basis, perhaps, but through green ideology. There may well be a growing population, but it is only a problem on the view in which is informed by environmentalism’s presuppositions. The idea that more people might be better at feeding themselves is anathema to population environmentalism, but yet there is good evidence that they are, and good arguments that they will continue to be, but which is evidence that it flatly ignored or sidelined by certain proponents of the environmental ‘message’. That message says that people are, in themselves, net risks.
The risk of things like avian flu, and fast food — as well as, now, running out of water, food and fuel and people in themselves — are the basis on which political power is now legitimised. Politicians now seek to identify risks where they once sought a mandate. And scientists are recruited into that project, just as NASA’s scientists were tasked with understanding how to send men into space.
In other words, science, as much as it is a technical means to a human ends in our hands, is equally a means to an ends in politicians hands. And that being the case, we can see in stories about how science has changed, broader social, political and ideological shifts.
Back to Roberts’s complaint, then, that I had unfairly accused the BBC and the Royal Society of having an ‘agenda':
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos You write as though you think that the Royal Soc, the BBC & Horizon producers have a secret agenda. They don’t.
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos At least, I think I would have discovered it by now if they did (unless I’m really thick)
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
.@clim8resistance @omnologos It’s not an agenda- this is the principle at work here. Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Oh yes! It’s a conspiracy. All of us academics who freelance for the BBC are in on it. (NOT)
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Amazing! Who’s setting this agenda? Aliens?
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Fantastic. We’re hoodwinking the ‘public’, somehow, and don’t know we’re doing it. Who’s being patronising?
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance then suggesting they’re too stupid to realise that they have an agenda… that’s a conspiracy too far.
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance None of my interactions with the RS and Horizon producers have made me think there’s any agenda beyond that…
Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance (I hate doing this) of setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public.
I think it has been shown here that taking science — especially where it has, on Nurse’s view ‘implications for policy’ — at face value is a terrible mistake. The epitome of the error is in the Malthusianism of Paul Ehrlich, which Horizon first gave a favourable treatment of in the 1970s, and has not done anything (as far as I can tell) in the meanwhile to do anything to rebut, in spite of its total failure (or at the least, the controversy that surrounds it), and its undoubted influence over global and domestic political institutions. And the same thinking is reproduced in the latest episode of Horizon. The Royal Society and its presidents, who Roberts claim have no agenda, made him a fellow. And, seeking the political power that his dire predictions seem to generate, launched a study that proceeded from his work on population. Here is Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics & Innovation, University of Manchester, discussing the Royal Society’s findings.
Roberts wants to claim that the Royal Society has no agenda. But Sulston has just presented a political manifesto, in which he instructs the world that it must abandon the principles on which productive life is organised — trade, on his view. It is as radical and far-reaching as any capitalist or communist manifesto. But rather than privileging institutions like private property or an economic class such as the proletariat, this manifesto puts scientific bureaucracies at the top table.
Politics is, on one definition, ‘Who gets what, when, and how” (Harold Lasswell). And Sulston has just pronounced on the rights and wrongs of who gets what, when and how. He has made prescriptive statements about how society ought to be organised, and who should be entitled to what, based on claims about how he (and the RS) thinks the world is. For the sense he makes, he might just as well have announced that it is flat.
It is obvious, then, that the Royal Society does have an agenda of some kind. It isn’t just looking at things under microscopes; it wants to effect political change in the world, and it wants to be an influential agent in that change. Unfortunately, however, the Royal Society — and I assume, Roberts — does not recognise that this is a political agenda. It thinks it is science.
But not all things that proceed from an empirical basis are science. As discussed above, how we move through and synthesise statistics about society’s relationship with the planet is sensitive to prejudices and presuppositions — ideology. And the problem with ideology is, unlike ‘agendas’ and ‘politics’, that it is often invisible. To the likes of Roberts and the FRSs, it may seem that Sulston’s manifesto is as self-evident as 2+2… But to me at least, he is manifestly not speaking about things that can be understood as material phenomena — objects of science. He presupposes things about people as individuals and in numbers, and their interactions with the natural world, to overstate our dependence on it. He eschews the insight that can be found in political thinking from Smith, through Marx, and onwards, contra Malthus, that it is people who depend on themselves, in spite of nature and her whims. The loaf of bread at my supermarket owes no more to natural processes than does the computer on my desktop. As Matt Ridley observes in The Rational Optimist, it is people, cooperating, which makes this life possible, not Nature’s Providence.
So let us clear a few things up for Roberts.
The ‘agenda’ is not secret, but it is not explicit. The Royal Society and its members do not recognise that their own positions are ideological, or political. That is not to call them ‘stupid’, but to say that science is not always sufficient to recognise its researchers’ presuppositions as political, in order to exclude them.
It is not a ‘conspiracy’. The ‘agenda’ is not to manoeuvre itself into political power subversively ot covertly. But this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the Royal Society and its kin are seeking greater power for themselves, either in good faith, as a commitment to the idea that institutional science should play a bigger role in society, or in bad faith — I don’t care to speculate.
This can be explained simply: a bad idea can be advanced in good faith. Ditto, seemingly good ideas can be advanced in bad faith.
Roberts asks us to believe that the ‘agenda’ is no more than “Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge.” and “setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public”. She is naive. And I count such self-deception as bad faith: Roberts didn’t like being questioned, didn’t like the evidence being interrogated, and she didn’t like the knowledge she didn’t like being shared. And she certainly didn’t like the dialogue with the public she was, for a moment at least, engaged with. Paul Nurse, similarly, didn’t like science being questioned, so he made a TV show about it. Science is not for questioning. It is for our humble respect. Just as TV broadcasting has become mere collection of awesome visual phenomena, so we are told to defer to science as though it had just produced some miracle, the awe demanding our obedience.
Which brings us to the BBC and Horizon.
I don’t see a great gulf between the Royal Society and the BBC. That is to say, I don’t see much of a difference between the broadcasting establishment and the scientific establishment, much less at their nexus. Certainly, the BBC do not seem to have gone out of their way to challenge the authority of the Royal Society, much less its claims — highly contestable claims in many cases. Yet any institution that so many journalists call their home should have been able to find something to say about it. Even George Monbiot managed to call them ‘idiot savants’ for their backing of GM crop production. But this should not surprise us. There is no culture at the BBC of challenging authority in any meaningful way. Its job, from its creation, was to extol the virtues of the British Establishment, and to transmit them across the planet.
The BBC is a bubble. Its broadcasting departments are bubbles. The scientific establishment is a bubble. Perspectives from without the bubble are met with ire much like Roberts’s and Nurses: challenges to the authority and the claims of the establishment are met with derision, the critics belittled as “anti-science”. Like the phenomenon of environmental journalism, the BBC’s science output is scripted and filmed inside the bubble. To the extent that there is ‘communication’ with the world outside the bubble, science is prescriptive of how the world should be, rather than a description of how the material world is.
So the word ‘agenda’ didn’t begin to describe the problem. Everybody, including scientists, has some kind of “agenda”. Agendas are human, as Bronowsky observed. The problem comes in not admitting it, and cementing those agendas into public institutions, away from criticism like some kind of church. It is the bubble which prevents the Royal Society from seeing Ehrlich’s work for what it is, and for asking itself — or being asked — what it is trying to do. And it is the bubble which causes the BBC’s science output to have dumbed down so considerably over the years. As that bubble puts more distance between those within and without, institutional science takes an ever more didactic role, turning its microscope at the disobedient public… “Why won’t you just do what we tell you”.
The BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon, is half a century old this year. To celebrate, the Beeb has put seventeen Horizon episodes from the archive online (though these may not be viewable outside the UK). The episodes have been chosen by Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. Introducing the series, Roberts explains,
It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology. The programmes from the 1960s presented a self-assured and optimistic vision of the contribution of scientists and science to society. By the 1970s, the tone had changed, reflecting a growing concern for the environment, and scepticism about science as the answer to all humanity’s problems. In fact, there’s a real sense that technology might even have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. In Now The Chips Are Down (1978), the invention of the silicon microchip was seen as a threat to jobs: people were about to be replaced by machines.
Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born. In 1971, an episode of Horizon called ‘Due to Lack of Interest, Tomorrow has been Cancelled’ was broadcast. The film is not available online, though the BBC’s interactive e-book available for Android devices, Kindle Fire, iPad, (Be warned – the ebook is huge, and will eat up a lot of data space and allowance) has a clip from the episode, and a short comment from Professor Iain Stewart, who readers will remember from the awful ‘Earth: Climate Wars’ series back in 2008. However, all we need to know about that episode is this blurb from the BFI.
Looks at the predictions of ecological disaster made by certain scientists, such as Prof. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, and examines the extent of the problem and the amount that can and is being done to combat it
Stewart makes the claim that in the 1970s, this was ground-breaking stuff, new to the mainstream. However, the following film made for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment demonstrates that the environmental movement (such as it was) had mustered political momentum amongst the global political class, not even a year later. The film shows that the environmentalists’ script has not changed in four decades, though fashion and video technology have.
The persistence of that unchanging narrative is one of the most frustrating things about debates about the environment. That’s not to say that Environmental problems do not exist, but that just as there is a difference between a problem such as stubbing your toe, and a problem like being run over by a bus, environmental problems are matters of degree. The environmental narrative is never presented as simply a problem that might cause a problem for some people in some circumstances at some point in the future. It is presented as a total, encompassing, terminal problem facing ‘all of humanity’, requiring immediate and comprehensive adjustments to our way of life, to economies, and political organisation.
Four decades separated the wild claims of Ehrlich from Stewart’s Climate Wars series, with no reflection from Stewart, or the BBC about the failure of the former’s thinking. Yet it would surely have made for a very interesting episode of Horizon. In early 1975, an episode called ‘A Time to be Born‘ raised serious questions about the increased use of medical interventions during childbirth, such as induction of labour, reflecting, as Roberts pointed out, a shift towards a more sceptical view of scientific developments and the role of technology in society. A 1978 film, ‘Now the Chips are Down‘ was concerned with the displacement of actual labour with machines and IT. Even brain surgeons might lose their jobs, warned the Horizon film. If it is right to question the claims made about the medicalisation of childbirth and the automation of the workplace, it is surely right to question science’s ability to formulate the most appropriate (or ‘sustainable’) form of political and economic organisation of society. But British public institutions are even to this day more inclined to celebrate Ehrlich than to raise questions about his failed prognostications.
(One exception here is Adam Curtis’s series, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, especially part two, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts’ [watch it here]. The film takes issue with the myth of balance in nature, and the attempt to model society on a false understanding of ecosystems. But although Curtis expertly handles scientific ideas in their contemporary social and political contexts, his films are not part of the BBC’s science output, and his perspective and depth of analysis is not shared by the rest of BBC’s science output.)
Back to Horizon, and Roberts’s introduction. Roberts, notes only that,
Looking back at the films, with the benefit of hindsight, we might feel that some programmes lacked objectivity or balance. But these programmes were reflecting real concerns – concerns expressed by scientists themselves about the potentially negative impacts of emerging technology on human populations, other species, and the planet as a whole. In subsequent series, alongside the presentation of more straightforward subjects such as new discoveries, Horizon continued to deal with areas of concern and controversy. The series accepted that, while science and technology could provide solutions, they could also become a source of problems. This, I believe, is one of the real strengths of this long-running series, and the reason that it is still such a trusted platform. Horizon has brought us astonishing science, and celebrated this important part of our culture, but it’s certainly not just a PR exercise for science. It hasn’t shied away from dealing with difficult scientific questions and public concern about certain aspects of science. It has been investigative and critical, but also thoughtful and non-sensationalist in its approach. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but the producers of Horizon have, over the decades, managed to tackle the subject in a way which has both earned the trust of the public and the respect of scientists.
Roberts is too kind to Horizon’s producers. The BBC, famously, has shied away from difficult questions, and has sought to provoke rather than investigate or illuminate ‘public concern’. I have more questions about the ‘objectivity and balance’ of the more recent episodes than about those from the 1970s.
“This is a film that demands action”, says the voice over of the 2006 Horizon episode on “Global Dimming”. “It reveals that we may have grossly underestimated the speed at which our climate is changing”.
Eight years later, the hiatus in warming is mainstream science, which has no explanation for it. Horizon’s mawkish treatment of the idea of global dimming did nothing to inform the public; its intention was to provoke sensation — not understanding — at the hight of climate change alarmism.
This hints at a transformation of the character of science broadcasting over the years, which the Horizon archive allows us to see more clearly.
In 1996, an episode of Horizon looked at the solution to Fermat’s last theorem. Watch it at the BBC site here or below.
Although I think the film gets slightly more bogged down in the emotional aspect of the discovery than it needs to — especially when considered alongside previous episodes in which scientific developments were considered quite coolly — it nonetheless gets into the process of discovery, and has expectations of the audience — the viewer’s intellectual capacities, as well as his ability to hold his interest even if he doesn’t completely follow the mathematical concepts in question.
A later (2010) episode of Horizon — ‘To Infinity and Beyond’ (watch it at the BBC site here or below) — made a far more feeble attempt to explore a mathematical idea.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”, says a sinister Steven Berkoff — an actor, seemingly playing the role of either some kind of researcher escaped from another dimension (in which the script from Bladerunner does not exist to be plagiarised by pretentious documentary makers) or infinity personified. “…Things that would change how you see this world. Enough to drive men to madness. … Your intuition is no use here. Faith alone can’t save you. … Is the Earth just one of uncountable copies tumbling through an unending void? … These are the deepest mysteries of the Universe.”
It is bullshit. And it is very silly bullshit. Unlike its earlier counterpart, Infinity and Beyond fails to explore the concept of infinity beyond the prosaic: attempts to formulate a concrete definition of unendingness produces mathematical or logical paradoxes. This could have been the subject for a useful hour long film, but in the hands of the director, it became instead an hour of filler, save for about two or three minutes of insight. It doesn’t explore the development of the concept of infinity and its problems. It put artistic expression — the director’s vanity and self-indulgence — before exposition. It mystified and anthropomorphised the concept of infinity. It failed to explore the debates that exist to any depth. And it made banal, groundless statements with faux gravitas, such as, “If infinity is real, it has implications far beyond the world of science; it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be you”. It doesn’t, you are you, whether or not ‘infinity is real’, whatever that means.
The difference between the two films shows us the triumph of style over substance. The first film required little more than a blackboard to convey complex ideas. The second film uses effects, CGI, a hammy actor, and expensive photography to give an infantile account of infinity. The Fermat film, conversely, gave a clear sense of the development of the discovery in which the personal stories of the participants did not dominate. And and the Fermat film made no extravagant claims about its consequences, in spite of the film-maker’s and participant’s enthusiasm.
Put simply, science as it is conceived of by the BBC’s commissioning editors is not a way of understanding material phenomena. It has become instead something to gawp at in slack-jawed wonderment. It has become a spectacle. The transformation here is in the broadcasters’ expectations of the public. Over the course of 14 years, the BBC’s estimation of its audience diminished.
So what. We’re talking about popular science, after all. Who cares if science broadcasting got a bit naff after the 1990s? This isn’t the point. The point is that the broadcasters’ attitude to the viewer has changed, which may only be disappointing to those of us who expect more out of public service broadcasting. And this attitude persists in films that are more significant to public debates.
And it gets worse.
Another film chosen by Alice Roberts to be in the Horizon collection was Paul Nurse’s attempt to explain what he saw as ‘Science Under Attack’. (Watch it here).
There is not much to add to what I pointed out at the time:
The [climate] debate is multi-dimensional, and controversy exists throughout. But for Nurse, identifying the points of disagreement and offering up an analysis isn’t the point. Instead, he takes for granted that ‘the science is in’, and wonders why trust in scientific authority seems to have been eroded. One reason for this loss of trust just might be that controversies and other inconveniences are swept aside by the polarisation of the debate, leaving a perception that authoritarian impulses are hiding behind scientific consensus. But to point this out would not fill an episode of Horizon. Instead, after a rather feeble retelling of the consensus position — mostly filmed before a NASA video wall depicting the robustness of consensus position — Nurse goes after the deniers, who he suspects are responsible for undermining public trust in science.
But there is no attack on science. Even climate change deniers will still take the advice of oncologists, and will still express criticism of climate change policies in scientific terms. What Nurse fails to recognise is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution. The reputation of the former is intact; but, as I’ve argued before here on Spiked, the scientific institution undermines its own credibility, regardless of any effort by ‘deniers’. The members of those institutions embarrass themselves, and then step to the BBC to create documentaries in which they scratch their heads about why nobody trusts them anymore.
If you discovered that the food you had bought had been pre-chewed, you would take such slop back to the supermarket. Yet the episode of Horizon presented by Paul Nurse sold the TV equivalent. We weren’t asked to understand the debate about climate science, only that we should accept a cartoonish account of it. Anyone who claimed that the story is more complicated than the axiom, ‘climate change is happening’ was ‘attacking science’. Nurse did not even let the sceptics speak for themselves, much less allow the audience to understand their argument.
As well as reflecting the broadcasters’ diminished estimation of the viewing public, the transformation of British science broadcasting reflects the transformation of British science. It is remarkable that the descent of Horizon occurs over the era in which the cultural authority of science increased, while institutions like the BBC and Royal Society increasingly seem to express contempt for the public. Whereas Britain’s public institutions once sought to elevate the public, they now condescend, hector and belittle them.
Here is the concluding part to one of the BBC’s finest attempts to talk about science in society — Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’, made in 1973.
Let us compare it with Paul Nurse’s effort, nearly forty years later.
This is what Bronowski said,
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’. I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leó Szilárd, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
I’m here in the Royal Society. Three hundred and fifty years of an endeavour which is built on respect for observation, respect for data, respect for experiment: trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you. We have to continue to use that approach if we are to solve problems such as climate change.
It’s become clear to me that if we hold to these ideals of trust in evidence then we have a responsibility to publicly argue our case. Because in this conflicted and volatile debate, scientists are not the only voices that are listened to.
When a scientific issue has important outcomes for society, then the politics becomes increasingly more important. So if we look at this issue of climate change, that is particularly significant. Because that has effects on how we manage our economy, and manage our politics. And so this is become a crucially political matter. And we can see that by the way the forces are being lined up on both sides. What really is required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideologies out of the way.
Earning trust requires more than focussing on the science. We have to communicate it effectively, too. Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about everything that they do. They do have to talk to the media, even if it does sometimes put their reputation at doubt. Because if we do not do that, it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science, and who may be driven by politics or ideology. This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too.
Aside from the fact that Nurse is not even able to commit the Royal Society to his own principle of debate, Nurse’s injunction is that we eschew ‘politics and ideology’ to ‘focus on the science’. Bronowski, I believe, would have called this dogma. He recognised that ‘Science is a very human form of knowledge’ and that ‘Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal’. What you can be sure of is that anyone who claims that he has been successful in eliminating ‘politics and ideology’ is either a liar or has fooled himself. Moreover, the desire to eliminate ‘politics and ideology’ from what Nurse himself admits are political and economic matters is surely as ‘political’ and ‘ideological’ as the very stuff Nurse wants to eliminate. Facts, evidence, observation and data are all mediated by ‘politics and ideology’. The only way science can proceed in messy debates such as the one Nurse wanted to find a clear way out of is by admitting it, and being aware of ideology and politics, including one’s own, and accepting of others’. In other words, in order to understand what science says (in the form of experiment, observation, data), you have to be aware of what you have told it.
But Nurse’s injunction forbids us from being aware of ‘politics and ideology’, and of accepting other perspectives in good faith: “trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you”, as though no one produced the experiments and data. Curiously, though he goes on to speak about ‘earning trust’. Scientists, it seems are not ‘driven by politics and ideology’. The pond in which Bronowsky stood tells us a very different story.
Nurse’s contempt for ‘politics and ideology’ and ‘polemicists and commentators’ is simple contempt for the viewer. Nurse asks for his trust, but does not reciprocate — the viewer is too easily misled, not being sufficiently equipped, too vulnerable to ‘others who don’t understand the science’. Science is just too complicated for the public. The values of the contemporary Royal Society are now identical to the values of the producers of Horizon: the public is a dangerous, contemptible moron.
The latest edition of Horizon (watch it here) marks an even lower low.
The £10 Million Challenge
To celebrate its 50th birthday, Horizon invites the public to play a role in tackling the greatest challenges facing science today.
This special episode of Horizon launches the £10 million Longitude Prize 2014 – a prize developed by Nesta, with Technology Strategy Board as funding partner, to find solutions to a new scientific challenge.
The Longitude Prize… ‘is a challenge with a £10 million prize fund to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time. It is being run and developed by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as launch funding partner.’ But rather than offering a prize to come up with a solution to a specific problem — how to keep time at sea — the British public are being asked which they prefer of the following challenges:
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
Three of these challenges have a clear environmental angle. The section on food, for instance, claims that “With a growing population and limited resources, providing everybody with nutritious, sustainable food is one of the biggest global problems ever faced” and that “The planet simply cannot support the increased demand generated by the spread of western habits. We’re running out of room, we’re running out of resources and we’re running out of time. We need a new, big food innovation.” In Horizon’s treatment of this challenge, Michael Mosley considers the possibility of growing insects for food, and GM. But it’s GM were supposed to be squeamish about, and is the issue that’s presented as controversial. But never mind these as solutions, let’s reconsider the problem: it’s not really food that’s the issue, but the feckless, fecund, uncontrolled masses.
Ditto the challenge of flight: “If aircraft carbon emissions continue to rise they could contribute up to 15 per cent of global warming from human activities within 50 years.” And ditto water: “As demand increases due to our growing population, we also face restricted water supplies due to the impact of altered weather patterns. The implications go beyond drinking: when drought hits agricultural regions, food prices rise”. The challenge is presented as one of a crisis that needs a remedy “before we really run dry”, says Iain Stewart. (Yes, him again).
But why is a growing population still, a la Ehrlich et al circa 1971 conceived of as inherently problematic, rather than as the solution to its own problems? Notice that these ‘challenges’ are presented as being driven by population growth, and are problems for some kind of authority, as well as for science to solve? So much is implied here that needs unpacking. In fact, the world is better at feeding itself than it was when the global population was half of what it now is. And in fact, most of these problems are solved without the involvement of global authority. But it was, however, scientific and technological advance which made that population growth possible. Someone made the observation that ‘Population growth did not explode because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits’, but because ‘they stopped dropping like flies’. The notion that we face ‘growing’ and deepening challenges from a growing population is the opposite of reality. More people, in better health and with more wealth have, and can build more water infrastructure to deal with the problem of ‘water stress’ and food shortages. That may well include technologies such as desalination, as Iain Stewart proposes, or with GM as Michael Mosley suggests (he can keep his insect burgers to himself). But those technologies should be seen as Good Things in their own right, for us, not as solutions to the problem of us.
But the case for positive development cannot be made by science (i.e. public institutions) without the prospect of crisis. And this shows us the reality of the new Longitude Prize and its partnership with Horizon. Nobody would say that finding cheaper ways of desalinating water, producing food, and producing new fuels or more efficient aircraft, (or for that matter, solving the problems faced by people with dementia, of resistance to antibiotics, or expanding the possibilities for people with paralysed bodies) are bad things. But what we should be aware of before being impressed by this public prize, is that £10 million ($16.8m) is peanuts. It probably isn’t much more than the cost of a few seasons of Horizon. If it were true that you could simply chuck £10m at a problem like low cost desalination and, Lo and Behold, the solution to it will be found in just the same way as the original Longitude Prize produced the chronometer, then why not just spend £60 million on them all? Surely even investment capitalists would see the money-making potential in such things as finding the means to provide the entire world with food and water, making the most efficient aviation fuel, curing paralysis and dementia and ending resistance to anti-biotics. They would make more than their money back in a day — perhaps even in an hour.
Is the audience being asked to believe that their vote will make a difference, or are they being patronised? It seems to me that science programming has met with that strangest of phenomena: reality TV and the talent show. All the challenges have given their auditions, and now the viewing public has been asked to judge which they believe to be most worthy. Which solution has the ‘X-Factor’?
Broadcasters used to have the monopoly on film-making. But as technology expanded possibilities and democratised film production, TV networks have had to compete with each other and the internet for eyes. Today, anyone can produce a film with an outlay of just a few thousand £ or $ for equipment (not including talent). The reality TV show and its close relative, the talent show, reflect broadcasters’ need to reinvent themselves, not as producers of TV shows, but of events that can pull an entire nation together. Whereas in the previous century, a TV documentary might have been watched by millions and changed public attitudes, today’s broadcasters need to generate epic levels of hype to acheive the same reach, just for the sake of it. The UK’s Channel 4, for instance, self consciously searches for ways to challenge public mores, loudly… To be more than a TV station, in other words, with a campaigning brief, to end the way the seas are fished, children are fed at school, or the way we perceive our naked bodies. The commissioning editors thus do not ask ‘which films should we make’, but ‘which social change should we try to effect’. Producing illuminating films is not a sufficient public service, it seems.
BBC’s partnership with the Longitude Prize reflect’s the science research funding bodies’ own anxieties about their public roles. A confident academic institution would not need to lower itself to the cultural level of science’s X-Factor. We see in the latest episode the culmination of Roberts’s concern about ‘relevance’ and Nurse’s hand-wringing about ‘communication’, and institutional science and the broadcasters’ lowered estimation of the public.
There is a final twist to this story of change, from great science documentaries to naff attempts to ‘engage’ a disinterested audience. Jacob Bronowski’s series, The Ascent of Man was commissioned by David Attenborough. Attenborough, of course, made some of the most spectacular natural history programmes. But as has been pointed out here, Attenborough’s shows have gone from documenting the natural world, to constructing a highly idealised view of it, aided by CGI and incredibly expensive photographic and post-production techniques. This idealism underpins Attenborough’s latter conversion to Malthusianism — a forty year journey from humanist to anti-humanist. Said Attenborough,
We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now. […] We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.
Attenborough was wrong. The BBC does not broadcast any programmes about ‘famine in Ethiopia’, but has a huge part of the schedule given over to nature — not even ‘science’ — programming. And he is wrong that things are getting worse and worse. 10,000 fewer infants in the developing world die, per day, today, than was the case in 1990. The world is living longer, richer, and healthier human lives, in spite of the damage that Attenborough imagines is being done to the ‘planet’.
Similarly, the excellent 1996 Horizon episode on Fermat’s Last Theorem was directed by Simon Singh. Whereas Singh in the 1990s had high expectations of his audience, his more recent comments suggest that his view of his fellow humans has diminished:
I suspect that climate numpties (numpty (noun): a reckless, absent-minded or unwise person) are far more common than we might think, and they can be found in the most surprising of places.
This became apparent to me when I was having lunch one day with five physics undergraduates from a London college. They were clearly bright, devoted to physics and fully paid-up fans of the scientific method. However, not one of them was committed to the notions that climate change was happening, that it was largely caused by human activity (eg the burning of fossil fuels) and that there would be trouble ahead unless something changed.
I was baffled – why would little versions of me (for I was a physics undergraduate over two decades ago) not accept manmade climate change when it was backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the vast majority of climate experts, Nobel Laureates and even David Attenborough?
A climate sceptic can either be intelligent or honourable, said Singh, but not both at the same time.
This gesture, like so many other comments made by science commentators/communicators reveals much about how they see the public. Singh’s injunction to the 5 delinquent physicists was not to find out for themselves what the state of the science is — i.e. ‘trust no one’ — but to obey the edicts issued by David King and David Attenborough… And that they should watch this video:
If that is what Singh believes will persuade physics undergrads, what must he think of the wider public?
In summary, the descent of science broadcasting is owed to broadcasters’ diminished expectations of the public, public institutions’ anxieties about their public role, and individual broadcasters’ rank misanthropy and contempt for other people. It is no surprise that when the giants of science broadcasting think that people are a plague, but that we are impressed by £10m stunts, and when one-time producers of excellent science TV believe that silly men in silly hats can convince us to change our minds, the attitude is reflected in the broadcasting schedule, and the public lose interest in “science” and the messages that are being smuggled within it.
It’s worth reflecting again here, on the failure of institutional science and public service broadcasting to put the neomalthusian ideas of the late sixties and early seventies under their microscopes and cameras. If science has implications for policy as Nurse says, then there are many lessons in Ehrlich’s failures, which reveal the ‘politics and ideology’ at work in the ideas that are still promoted by the BBC and Royal Society. They have not been thrown away by Horizon. Indeed, just as climate change rescued Ehrlich’s ideas, climate change and neomalthusianism ideas seem to have rescued the institutions that identify themselves with them. That’s not to say that ‘climate change is not happening’, but that if it wasn’t, The Royal Society, The BBC, the institutions that fund public science, and so many tired old broadcasters might have to invent it.