May 312014

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”.

May 252014

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.

BBC.Horizon.2010.To.Infinity.and.Beyond.PDTV.XviD. by singaporegeek

“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’[2]. 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.

And Nurse:

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.

IPCC: A Damp Squib

Posted by Ben Pile on April 7, 2014
Apr 072014

David Rose has an article in the Sunday Mail yesterday, which I provided the research for. The top article is about the dispute between Bob Ward and Professor Richard Tol.

David Rose asked me to compare the WGII SPM with the chapters. I found a number of discrepancies, which are written up in the paper, and do much (in my view) to support Professor Tol’s claim that the report’s alarmist tone was largely groundless.

The IPCC have responded to the article. The statement takes issue with Tol, first, and then seems to address the discrepancies I have found… But doesn’t.

The Mail on Sunday also quotes some passages from the Working Group II Summary for Policymakers on migration and refugees, wars and conflicts, famine, and extreme weather, which it claims are “sexed up” from statements in the underlying report. In doing so it misleads the reader by distorting the carefully balanced language of the document.

Which document was written in ‘delicately balanced’ language — the SPM or the chapters? And how was this fragile balance ‘distorted’ by the article? The SPM’s language certainly wasn’t balanced. It was unequivocal in many cases. But the language in the chapters told a different story.

For instance, the Mail on Sunday quotes the Summary as saying climate change will ‘increase risks of violent conflicts’. In fact the Summary says that climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying factors such as poverty and economic shocks.

Here is what the article said:

WGII SPM, Page 20:

Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks (medium confidence). Multiple lines of evidence relate climate variability to these forms of conflict.

The SPM links to WGII Chapters 12.5, 13.2, and 19.4.

SPM chapter 12 is concerned with “human security”. Section 12.5 is concerned with “Climate change and Armed Conflict”. I found the chapter to be quite sober, in contrast to the SPM. For e.g.

There is a specific research field that explores the relationship between large-scale disruptions in climate and the collapse of past empires. Relationships are explored using statistical analysis and data derived from archaeological and other historical records. For example, the timing of the collapse of the Khmer empire in the Mekong basin in the early 15th century corresponds to an unusually severe prolonged drought (Buckley et al., 2010). DeMenocal (2001) summarizes evidence that suggests that major changes in weather patterns coincided with the collapse of several previously powerful civilizations, including the Anasazi, the Akkadian, Classic Maya, Mochica, and Tiwanaku empires. Other historical reference points of the interaction of climate with society emerge from analysis of the little Ice Age. Some studies show that the Little Ice Age in the mid 17th century was associated with more cases of political upheaval and warfare than in any other period (Parker 2008, Zhang et al., 2011), including in Europe (Tol and Wagner 2010), China (Brook 2010), and the Ottoman empire (White 2011b). These studies all show that climate change can exacerbate major political changes given certain social conditions, including a predominance of subsistence producers, conflict over territory, and autocratic systems of government with limited power in peripheral regions. The precise causal pathways that link these changes in climate to changes in civilizations are not well understood due to data limitations. Therefore, it should be noted that these findings from historical antecedents are not directly transferrable to the contemporary globalized world. The literature urges caution in concluding that mean future changes in climate will lead to large-scale political collapse (Butzer 2012).

That is an unequivocal statement of caution. And the measured tone continues:

Most of the research on the connections between climate change and armed conflict focuses on the connections between climate variability and intrastate conflicts in the modern era. For the most, part this research examines rainfall or temperature variability as proxies for the kinds of longer-term chances that might occur due to climate change. Several studies examine the relationship between short-term warming and armed conflict (Burke et al., 2009; Buhaug 2010; Koubi et al., 2012; Theisen et al., 2012; O’Loughlin et al., 2012). Some of these find a weak relationship, some find no relationship, and collectively the research does not conclude that there is a strong positive relationship between warming and armed conflict (Theisen et al., 2013).

Still the chapter is advising that we should be careful about linking climate change to armed conflict.

The large majority of studies focuses on Africa and use satellite-enhanced rainfall data collected since 1980. A global study by Hsiang et al. (2011) considers changes in climate over multiple years, and finds that since 1950 and in countries that are affected by ENSO the risk of war within countries rises during an ENSO period. This study is supported by some studies that find associations between deviations in rainfall and civil war (Miguel et al., 2004; Hendrix and Glaser 2007; Hendrix and Salehyan 2012; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012), but contradicted by others that find no significant association between droughts and floods and civil war (Buhaug 2010; Buhaug and Theisen 2012; Koubi et al. 2012; Theisen et al. 2012; Slettebak 2012). There is high agreement that in the specific circumstances where other risk factors are extremely low (such as where per capita incomes are high, and states are effective and consistent), the impact of changes in climate on armed conflict is negligible (Bernauer et al., 2012; Koubi et al., 2012; Scheffran et al., 2012a; Theisen et al., 2013).

I have quoted nearly all of 12.5. It is immediately followed by Box 12-5. Climate and the Multiple Causes of Conflict in Darfur (page 16):

Climate variability or climate change are popularly reported to be significant causes of the mass killing in the Darfur region that began in 2003 (see Mazo, 2009). Five detailed studies dispute the identification of the Darfur conflict as being primarily caused by climate change (Kevane and Gray, 2008; Brown, 2010; Hagen and Kaiser, 2011; Sunga, 2011; Verhoeven, 2011).

All studies of this conflict agree that it is not possible to isolate any of these specific causes as being most influential (Kevane and Gray, 2008; Hagen and Kaiser, 2011; Sunga, 2011; Verhoeven, 2011). Most authors identify government practices as being far more influential drivers than climate variability, noting also that similar changes in climate did not stimulate conflicts of the same magnitude in neighboring regions, and that in the past people in Darfur were able to cope with climate variability in ways that avoided large scale violence.

I’m still not getting how the SPM got to its concern about “amplifying well-documented drivers of these [armed] conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”.

But, on the other hand, the IPCC does identify in 12.5.2 much more clearly that climate change mitigation can cause conflict:

Research is beginning to show that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions can increase the risk of armed conflict, as well as compound vulnerabilities in certain populations (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Adger and Barnett, 2009; Webersik, 2010; Fairhead et al., 2012; Marino and Ribot, 2012; Steinbruner et al., 2012). This is based on robust evidence that violent political struggles occur over the distribution of benefits from natural resources (Peluso and Watts, 2001). Hence, in circumstances where property rights and conflict management
institutions are ineffective or illegitimate, efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change that change the distribution of access to resources have the potential to create and aggravate conflict.

The attempts to create a link between climate change and conflict have been made for obvious reasons: it would help to sell the idea of the world descending to hell, and sell the climate change agenda to security agencies. But it is at best a contested claim that climate even has a trivial influence over conflict. The IPCC’s rebuttal that climate change can “amplify” the “well-documented drivers of conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks” is equally bogus. It appears to me to be a weaselly way of trying to sustain a link between climate change and conflict no matter what the evidence says, through truisms. But even if it were true that climate change could “amplify” “poverty” and “economic shock” we are no better informed about the degree of amplification for any given amount of global warming. And then there is the problem of identifying the extent to which conflicts have been “driven” by poverty and economic shocks, amplified or not. Moreover, if climate change is a problem which “amplifies” poverty, then the problem is still fundamentally poverty, not climate.

The IPCC’s rebuttal continues:

The Mail on Sunday says the Summary warns of negative impacts on crop yields, with warming responsible for lower yields of wheat, maize, soya and rice. In fact the Summary says that negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts, with wheat and maize yields negatively affected in many regions and effects on rice and soybean yields smaller in major production regions.

The article says:

The SPM said:

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence). The smaller number of studies showing positive impacts relate mainly to highlatitude regions, though it is not yet clear whether the balance of impacts has been negative or positive in these regions (high confidence). Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate (medium confidence). Effects on rice and soybean yield have been smaller in major production regions and globally, with a median change of zero across all available data, which are fewer for soy compared to the other crops. Observed impacts relate mainly to production aspects of food security rather than access or other components of food security. See Figure SPM.2C. Since AR4, several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes among other factors (medium confidence).

The IPCC’s statement of the SPM line does nothing to address the problems identified by our article. The SPM is designed to give the reader the impression that crop yields and crop production have fallen. But neither are true. Over the years since AR4, the claim has come up time and time again. And we’ve been able to check claims against the UN’s own statistics.

The IPCC complains that the Mail on Sunday article has misled. But it’s a funny kind of world in which it is known that “negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts”, and yet yields per acre and in total have increased. The IPCC’s WGII SPM was intended to mislead — to give the impression that yields were falling because of climate change.

SEction 7.2.1 points out that

…Formal detection of impacts requires that observed changes be compared to a clearly specified baseline that characterizes behaviour in the absence of climate change…

And that

Attribution of any observed changes to climate trends are further complicated by the fact that models linking climate and agriculture must, implicitly or explicitly, make assumptions about farmer behaviour. […]In most cases, models implicitly assume that farming practices or technologies did not adjust in response to climate over the period of interest.

So in order to make the claim that “negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts”, the IPCC — or the studies they have reviewed — have had to assume:

* That food producers are stupid.
* That a world without climate change would have been more fertile than the one we live in.

There is a very real possibility that the counterfactual scenario allows researchers to pass their premise off as a conclusion: if you assume that a world with climate change is less productive than a world without it, then, surprise surprise, when you compare a counterfactual statistic to a real world statistic, you get a result that reflects your assumptions. Either way, the world is still more productive than it ever has been, thanks in large part to the substances which are blamed for causing climate change. It would be difficult to imagine the following scenarios in a world without tractors, let alone fertiliser produced from natural gas:

Readers may want to investigate further why a lead author of the chapter in which these claims are made enjoyed so many citations:

Lobell, D. and M. B. Burke, 2008: Why are agricultural impacts of
climate change so uncertain? The importance of temperature relative to
precipitation. Environmental Research Letters, 3, 034007.
Lobell, D. B. and M. B. Burke, 2010: On the use of statistical models
to predict crop yield responses to climate change. Agricultural and
Forest Meteorology, 150, 1443-1452.
Lobell, D. B.and C. B. Field, 2007: Global scale climat-crop yield
relationships and the impacts of recent warming. Environmental
Research Letters, 2.
Lobell, D. B. and C. B. Field, 2012: California perennial crops in a
changing climate. Climatic Change, 109, 317-333
Lobell, D., Ortiz-Monasterio, J. 2007. Impacts of day versus night
temperatures on spring wheat yields. 2007. Agronomy Journal 99,
Lobell, D.B., Sibley, A. and Ortiz-Monasterio, J.I., 2012. Extreme
heat effects on wheat senescence in India. Nature Climate Change,
2(3): 186-189.
Lobell, D. B., U. L. C. Baldos and T. W. Hertel, 2013: Climate
adaptation as mitigation: the case of agricultural investments.
Environmental Research Letters, 8. doi10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015012.
Lobell, D.B., Hammer, G.L., McLean, G., Messina, C., Roberts, M.J. and
Schlenker, W., 2013. The critical role of extreme heat for maize
production in the United States. Nature Climate Change, 3: 497-501
Lobell, D. B. , J. I. Ortiz-Monasterio, G. P. Asner, P. A. Matson, R.
L. Naylor and W. P. Falcon, 2005: Analysis of wheat yield and climatic
trends in Mexico. Field Crops Research, 94, 250-256.
Lobell, D.B., Schlenker, W. and Costa-Roberts, J., 2011. Climate
Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980. Science, 333(6042):
Lobell, D.B., Banziger, M., Magorokosho, C. and Vivek, B., 2011.
Nonlinear heat effects on African maize as evidenced by historical
yield trials. Nature Clim. Change, 1(1): 42-45.
Lobell, D.B., M.B. Burke, C. Tebaldi, M.D. Mastrandrea, W.P. Falcon,
and R.L. Naylor, 2008: Prioritizing Climate Change Adaptation Needs
for Food Security in 2030. Science, 319, 607-610.

Ainsworth, E.A. and J.M. McGrath, 2010: Direct effects of rising
atmospheric carbon dioxide and ozone on crop yields. In: Climate
Change and Food Security: adapting agriculture to a warmer world.
[Lobell, D. and M. Burke(eds.)]. Springer, pp. 109-130.
Burke, M.B., D.B. Lobell, and L. Guarino, 2009: Shifts in African Crop
Climates by 2050, and the Implications for Crop Improvement and
Genetic Resources Conservation. Global Environmental Change, 19,
Hertel, T.W., M.B. Burke, and D.B. Lobell, 2010: The poverty
implications of climate-induced crop yield changes by 2030. Global
Environmental Change, 20, 577-585.

The IPCC is in no position to speak about misleading people about the possibility of reduced food yields.

Its rebuttal continues:

The references to the underlying report cited by the Mail on Sunday in contrast to the Summary for Policymakers also give a completely misleading and distorted impression of the report through selective quotation. For instance the reference to “environmental migrants” is a sentence describing just one paper assessed in a chapter that cites over 500 papers – one of five chapters on which the statement in the Summary for Policymakers is based.

The article said:

The SPM said:

Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people (medium evidence, high agreement). Displacement risk increases when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in developing countries with low income. Expanding opportunities for mobility can reduce vulnerability for such populations. Changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer-term climate variability and change, and migration can also be an effective adaptation strategy. There is low confidence in quantitative projections of changes in mobility, due to its complex, multi-causal nature.

It is worth recalling the UN’s previous prediction of 50 Million climate refugees. Wattsupwiththat had a fun and empirical post on the subject back in 2011 at

This is the ENTIRE section on migration from chapter 9. Migration

It is difficult to establish a causal relationship between environmental degradation and migration (see Section 12.4.1). Many authors argue that migration will increase during times of environmental stress (e.g. Afifi, 2011; Gray and Mueller, 2012; Kniveton et al., 2011; Brown and Crawford, 2008), and will lead to an increase in abandonment of settlements (McLeman, 2011). Climate variability has been associated with rural-urban migration (Mertz et al., 2011; Parnell and Walawege, 2011). Another body of literature argues that migration rates are no higher under conditions of environmental or climate stress (Black et al., 2011a and b; van der Geest, 2011; van der Geest and de Jeu, 2008; Tacoli, 2009; McLeman and Hunter, 2010; Gemenne, 2011; Foresight, 2011; Cohen, 2004; Brown, 2008). For Tacoli (2009) the current alarmist predictions of massive flows of so-called “environmental refugees” or “environmental migrants”, are not supported by past experiences of responses to droughts and extreme weather events and predictions for future migration flows are tentative at best. Analogies with past migration experiences are used frequently in such studies (McLeman and Hunter 2010). For example, in Ghana the causality of migration was established to be relatively clear in the case of sudden-onset environmental perturbations such as floods, whereas in case of slow-onset environmental deterioration, there was usually a set of overlapping causes – political and socioeconomic factors – which come into play (van der Geest, 2011). Similarly, a recent survey by Mertz et al. (2010) has argued that climate factors played a limited role in past adaptation options of Sahelian farmers. Given the multiple drivers of migration (Black et al., 2011a and b) and the complex interactions which mediate migratory decision-making by individual or households (Raleigh, 2008; McLeman and Smit, 2006; Kniveton et al., 2011; Black et al., 2011a and b), the projection of the effects of climate change on intra-rural and rural-to-urban migration remains a major challenge.

Chapter 12, section 12.4 (pg 15) states:

There is widespread agreement in the scientific and legal literature that the use of the term climate refugee is scientifically and legally problematic (Taccoli, 2009; Piguet, 2010; Black et al., 2011a; Gemenne, 2011; Jakobeit and Methmann 2012; Bettini, 2013; Piguet, 2013). McAdam calls the concept ‘erroneous as a matter of law and conceptually inaccurate’ (McAdam, 2011, p. 102). The reasons are threefold. First, most migration and climate studies point to the environment as triggers and not causes for migration decisions. Second, some studies focus on the negative geo-political implications of changing the Geneva Convention on refugees to include environmental migrants as well as the lack of global instruments to handle internal displaced peoples or international migrants (Martin, 2009; Cournil, 2011). Third, many small island countries are reluctant themselves to have their international migrants designated as being victims of climate change (McNamara and Gibson, 2009; Farbotko, 2010; Barnett and O’Neill, 2011; Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012).

There were not 500 studies cited by the IPCC WGII in relation to migration as a consequence of climate change. Worse, the chapters explicitly contradict the SPM in more than one chapter. And in fact, rather than depending on just one paper (out of 500), the article quotes from two different chapters’ own conclusions about the range of literature.

A simple keyword search shows many references to publications and statements in the report showing the opposite conclusion, and supporting the statement in the Summary that “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence…”

The implication here seems to be that there are lots of other papers, cited throughout the chapters, which support the SPM’s claims. If it’s true, it is the IPCC’s problem. I checked the SPM’s claims against the chapter references cited in the SPM. Moreover, if the evidence considered by the WGII is contradictory, the contradictory nature of the evidence should be reflected in the SPM. It wasn’t. We don’t need to think very deeply about why such an evaluation of the evidence was omitted.

The IPCC have misled people with the WGII SPM. And it has furthermore misled people about the criticism of the SPM.

More results from the research will be published soon.

One Giant Bleak Against Mankind

Posted by Ben Pile on March 25, 2014
Mar 252014

I have an article over at Spiked, on the matter of that dodgy ‘NASA-funded’ end-is-nigh report.

The article, by the catastrophile and author of The Crisis of Civilisation, Nafeez Ahmed, was soon picked up by dozens of other newspapers, and hundreds of websites, all over the world. ‘NASA-funded study warns of “collapse of civilisation” in coming decades’, screamed the Independent. ‘Industrial civilisation “may be heading toward collapse” within decades because of its strain on the planet’s resources, NASA report finds’, yelled the Daily Mail.

It was written last week. Since then, Keith Kloor has given at least Ahmed’s version of the study a well-deserved spanking for his low journalistic standards.

Ahmed wrote an uncritical appraisal of the study. He didn’t bother to inquire about the merits of the model or its results.

Ahmed, is, though, a catstrophile, excited by the possibility of Judgement Day, and accordingly preoccupied. He responds to Kloor back at the gloomy-doomy Guardian:

Journalistic standards won’t be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don’t like

There is obviously no room, in Ahmed’s version of ‘journalist standards’, between salivating over scientific doomsayers, and rejecting all science.

Weirdly, part of Ahmed’s defence is this claim

Kloor’s journalistic rigour apparently somehow failed to involve bothering to read either my book or my numerous observations over the years on the grounds for long-term optimism.

Which links to yet another article of Ahmed’s, the optimism in which appears to be this,

As energy is the underpinning of a society, the unravelling of the fossil fuel system signifies the demise of the old paradigm. By the end of this century, one way or another, this paradigm will be obsolete. It’s up to us what will take its place – and as the death-spiral of the old paradigm accelerates, so do the opportunities to explore viable alternatives.

The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.

The unravelling of the fossil fuel system is, of course, witnessed only by Ahmed. The rest of the world is consuming more of it than ever before, and so it is a good thing that more of it seems to have been found.

And in any case, it’s a weird kind of optimism, that is predicated on a chaotic transition from one ‘paradigm’ to another, like some kind of traumatic re-birth. Ahmed imagines the benefits of a post-economic society in an era clearly characterised by scarcity, rather than abundance. The environmentalist fantasises that we will re-discover our lost humanity through poverty — that we will have nice, fluffy politics, in spite of only a basic level of life.

In this model, households, communities and towns become producers and consumers of clean energy – and the same could apply to food.

We should reject this model.

I do not want to grow my own food, nor produce my own energy. 1. I wouldn’t be very good at it. 2. I don’t have enough time. 3. I have better things to do.

And I do not want to live in a ‘community’ which is bought together by necessity. If it floats your boat, more power to your elbows (and your comrades’ elbows). But there’s more to life than eating and sh*tting, and correspondingly, more to life than growing food and clearing up sh*t.

I would rather choose where I live, choose what I do, and choose what to have for dinner.

I don’t believe, as Ahmed seems to, that the Good Life exists in the post-fossil world he imagines. People do not discover humanity in subsistence. Yes, it is a Good Thing when humans cooperate to achieve each others’ or their shared aims. But Ahmed can only picture such ‘interdependence’ in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

This form of ethics is as crass as the motivations depicted by second rate Hollywood disaster B-movies. In such movies, some asteroid, alien-invasion, zombies or the incautious meddling of scientists, wipe the slate clean, removing the problem of determining consent for authority through political means — democracy. Only the virtuous survive the disaster, leaving intact those who were brought together by, yes, necessity. The agent of catastrophe is just a metaphor for misanthropy, or at least, the author’s inarticulate expression of rage at other people’s disobedience.

The ethics of doom are infantile. The likes of Ahmed don’t seem to be able to make a distinction between the failure to assert their will over the world and the end of the world. And they are narcissistic — consumed by themselves.

Speaking of crap films. Here is a film version of Ahmed’s thesis, in which he looks for an encompassing theory to explain ALL of the world’s problems.

Mar 082014

As we all now know, Marcel Crok and Nicholas Lewis have written a report on the IPCC’s treatment of climate sensitivity, published by the GWPF. The GWPF’s press release is here, the long version of the report is here, and the short version is here.

Andrew Orlowski has a nice piece on the report comprising a Q&A with Lewis at the Register.

The nuts and bolts of the science have never been of interest to this blog — that is for other blogs. But what is interesting about challenges to putative mainstream climate science is the responses that they generate. The scientific controversy isn’t generally very interesting, except to those who already take a particular interest in climate science’s debates. What this blog argues is that the treatment of scientific debates often reveal much more about the prevailing politics — the context of the climate debate — than a narrow treatment of scientific questions can reveal.

To take one crude example, Exactly seven years ago today, Martin Durkins’ film, The Great Global Warming Swindle (aka TGGWS) was broadcast on Channel 4. TGGWS rightly or wrongly suggested that variations in solar output might be indirectly driving changes in the planet’s temperature. This may or may not have advanced science or the public’s understanding of the scientific arguments. But what it did reveal was the uglier side of the argument in favour of action to mitigate climate change. The climate change establishment mobilised against the film, calling for its censorship. “Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements”, complained Bob Ward, the charmless leader of this new inquisition.

But free speech means nothing if it does not mean the freedom to make misleading statements, either in good faith or bad. My claim here might raise eyebrows. But the obvious problem with Ward’s claim is that individuals like him will shut down any reasonable debate on the basis of ‘factual accuracy’ once the state has determined it knows best what is or isn’t ‘factually accurate’. And as this blog has argued, the political utility of a scientific consensus was understood before the consensus was formed. Indeed, there is a good argument, whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, that a consensus was sought on climate change precisely because of its political utility, other consensuses in society being so hard to achieve in the current political environment. Politics has colonised science, whether or not climate science has understood the object of its study. The point, then, is not to say that people should be free to lie, but that it is an unfortunate consequence of saying that people should be free to speak the truth to the authoritarian impulses of lunatics like Robert Ward of the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics. And it’s not just journalists and the free press that Ward has his sights on — he also wants to prevent academics producing research that might slow the progress of the climate agenda, and to prevent academic journals from publishing that research.

Similarly, and as discussed here, Matthew England’s recent discovery of the ‘missing heat’ — right or wrong — in the oceans followed years of his somewhat angry criticisms of climate sceptics rightly pointing out the missing heat, leading to their claims, rightly or wrongly that climate science had erred. Once it became obvious that the heat was missing, England decided to go find it. Sceptics, far from distorting the scientific debate, had in fact, driven scientific discovery, whether or not they had been right about any aspect of climate science. Had Matt England’s ire been unbridled by such vulgar preoccupations as free speech, democracy, and academic independence — the sort of thing he and Ward seem hostile to — science may not have made the discovery he now claims as his own (if it is indeed a discovery). Moreover, anyone suggesting that the missing heat had found its way to the oceans might have found themselves thrown out of the academy for suggesting such a thing.

Time will tell whether Ward and England have accurately represented the science. Meanwhile, we can see their politics in its bright livery and shiny boots. So let’s get back to the current story, which is Lewis and Crok’s paper, published by the GWPF. What does the response to the report tell us about the politics of today’s climate debate?

There were some rapid replies from science. Notably, Piers Foster at Ed Hawkins’ Climate Lab Book, set out his own analysis of the Lewis & Crok paper, without — as far as I can tell — any obvious ideological baggage, though some sceptics pointed out that the reply was obfuscation, rather than a serious rejoinder. The consensus police arrived, as they are inclined to, to manage the situation in the way only they know how.

['And Then There's Physics' and 'BBD' visit the Climate Lab Book]

The Science Media Centre soon followed with an attempt at ‘expert reaction to new report on climate sensitivity published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation‘. The SMC’s approach to climate is less about getting clear scientific advice to the public debate than it is about getting rehearsed soundbytes from scientists into the press as quickly as possible. This is PR. And so it is no surprise that Bob Ward (him again!) sits on the organisation’s advisory committee. Readers of Bishop Hill blog will already know that Chief Executive of the SMC, Fiona Fox, is chairing a ‘debate’ about the question ‘Are there really two sides to every science story?‘ later this month, apparently in the wake of Lord Lawson’s appearance on Radio 4′s Today programme opposite Hoskins, which caused so much ire. Notably, the panellists do not include anyone from the side which might claim there is more than one story to the climate debate. It is populated, however, by Bob Ward (him again), and Steve Jones, whose views on sceptics on the BBC is not so different, as reported here, back in 2011.

Says Fox:

“I think many now agree that the hallowed principle of ‘journalistic balance’ is problematic when it comes to science and no one has made that point more than me. But I also think we have to be careful about where lines are drawn. Reporting climate change or GM crops as if there is a 50/50 split in science is misleading, inaccurate and poor journalism. But that does not mean that media debates about these controversies should be monopolised by scientists to the exclusion of other voices. I have agreed to chair this debate because I genuinely sit somewhere in the middle and think this panel guarantees a thoughtful, grown up discussion between speakers who care passionately about getting this right.”

Fox’s claim that she sits ‘somewhere in the middle’ is unconvincing. Notice that the SMC did not canvass anyone who welcomed the report, whether they agreed with it or not, as a contribution to the debate. Instead, the SMC’s correspondents belittled it. The SMC trades on the view that ‘science’ produces single answers to simple questions, whereas in reality, science — especially climate science — is a messy process, which investigates poorly understood, and even less clearly defined problems. (If it were otherwise, there would be no need for science). Being ‘half way’ on the question about the appropriate balance of opinion (yes, opinion) in the media is not ‘half way’ between censorship and editorial freedom. The idea that one can be half way on such a question is almost as absurd as the idea that Bob Ward can contribute to a ‘a thoughtful, grown up discussion’, much less guarantee one.

The SMC has not challenged Ward’s particular form of emphasis on the science — and it couldn’t. And it has not challenged the nonsense emerging from environmental psychology, such as that coming from Cardiff University (about which more follows) and Stephan Lewandowsky. It has not challenged the tone or the content of the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers’ comments on climate change, nor the Royal Society’s presidents, even where they have been entirely unscientific. And it couldn’t. What use is science to society, if its advocates are not brave enough to point out the nonsense that is produced in the name of the scientific consensus?

Ward now represents an extreme position in the climate debate, which, it seems clear, organisations and individuals will want to move away from in the near future. But for now, the division that Ward wants to maintain between the orthodox position and its critics is sustained, not by clearly articulated scientific dispute, but by a single, entrenched — although perhaps unconscious — political perspective. It emerges under Foster’s attempt to define the scientific disagreement, and it is perpetuated by SMC’s attempt to control the narrative in the wider sphere. The SMC’s emphasis on ‘expert opinion’, reflects the ‘values’ recently evinced by Lewandowsky, that debate about the climate and criticism of his own work is valid only when ‘addressed through proper channels’ — it ‘should take place in the scientific literature’. Lewandowsky is a demonstration of the academy’s failure, and the SMC a demonstration of the need for climate scepticism, right or wrong.

The BBC’s Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, then suggested that the report might in fact represent the ‘foremost bastions of contrariness when it comes to man-made climate change, admitting that temperatures were actually rising in response to human emissions of greenhouse gases’. It’s the sort of thing we probably expect from the BBC. But it was more surprising from Reiner Grundmann, who, following McGrath, noted,

‘This raises the interesting question how much of the Lewis/Crok paper is actually endorsed by the GWPF. Providing a platform for an IPCC critical analysis does not mean the organisation shares the details, or the broader message of the paper. Maybe the motivation was to undermine the IPCC’s authority.

I’ve always found Grundmann’s writing interesting, there being a strong indication in his work that there’s more going on than the idea that environmentalism is a straightforward response to science. But the lack of sophistication in this analysis was disappointing, to say the least. Further noting Ed Hawkins’s comment that ‘if we broadly agree on this, the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet‘, Grundmann goes on to claim,

If my reading is correct that the GWPF does not commit to this implication but is mainly interested in IPCC bashing, the invitation to Lewis and Crok may have led to a new dynamic. Commentators read this as a sign that there is some agreement emerging, despite the appearance to the contrary (because the GWPF emphasises that the sensitivity analysis is different between Lewis/Crok and IPCC).

And concludes,

It is now up to the GWPF to re-state their position with regard to climate policies: is there reason to act or to bury the head in the sand?

This seems to be the reasoning:

1. Lewis and Crok assess the IPCC’s assessment of the science on climate sensitivity.
2. Lewis and Crok determine that the IPCC over-estimates climate sensitivity.
3. But Lewis and Crock’s estimate is not radically different to the IPCC’s.
4. The GWPF published Lewis and Crock’s report.
5. But the GWPF are deniers of climate change.
6. The GWPF is must commit to the implications of Lewis and Crok’s proximity to the IPCC estimate.
7. The implications are still that a lower estimate of climate sensitivity means ‘there is a reason to act’.

It seems that many are surprised that the GWPF seem to have published a report that doesn’t say that ‘there is no such thing as climate change’. Yet of all the reports published by them, not one expresses a view of the debate as has been portrayed.

Jonathan Jones from the University of Oxford was the first to point out the obvious problem, in this superb comment:

It has been amusing to watch the apparent surprise of many climate scientists at their discovery that many “climate sceptics” are actually lukewarmers. Taking a rough and ready definition, that lukewarmers believe in AGW but doubt catastrophic AGW, one could reasonably place many of the more famous sceptics (Liljegren, McIntyre implicitly, Montford, Watts explicitly) in that camp, together with a number of “maverick” climate scientists (Curry, Lewis, Lindzen). Indeed it has long seemed to me that the unspoken position of Klimazwiebel itself has sympathy for lukewarmerdom.

What does not follow from this, however, is Ed’s suggestion that “the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet”. Or to be more precise that is, as it always has been, a reasonable question, but a perfectly reasonable answer at the moment would be “little or nothing”. Many lukewarmers are also “policy sceptics”, and their view that current policy responses are hopelessly ineffective, with costs far exceeding any conceivable benefits, remains unchanged.

And straying briefly into more dangerous territory, lukewarmers can and do remain highly critical of the IPCC, the hockey stick, the climategate fiasco, the Lewandowsky nonsense, and the bizarre idea that sceptics are a bunch of “fossil fuel funded deniers”. True peace in our time requires mainstream climate science to acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.

Similarly, Benny Peiser responded,

I’m afraid both Matt McGrath and Reiner Grundmann misunderstand the GWPF and our work. They should know better.

Our mission statement and philosophy has been known ever since we launched the GWPF in 2009 and is prominently posted on our website:

* We have developed a distinct set of principles that set us apart from most other stakeholders in the climate debates:
* The GWPF does not have an official or shared view about the science of global warming – although we are of course aware that this issue is not yet settled.
* On climate science, our members and supporters cover a broad range of different views, from the IPCC position through agnosticism to outright scepticism.

As a matter of fact, we don’t even have a collective view on the excellent new report by Nic Lewis and Marcel Crok.

We are promoting an open debate, our opponents are trying to close it down.

And reiterated the point later:

GWPF members have different views on most subject matters. The only issue we all agree upon: that there is a manifest lack of an open, frank and critical climate debate.

To encourage open discussion and critical assessment is the main raison d’être of our work and existence.

Which was denied by Grundmann:

You are trying to paint the GWPF as a group without clear direction as every member has different views. I think this is misleading. The GWPF occupies a well defined space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse.

I took the issue up with Grundmann, who tweeted, “Has the GWPF become lukewarm?”

I asked, “You say GWPF may have ‘become’ something. What was it before? Perhaps it is only prejudices that have changed.”

Grundmann didn’t want to dwell on the question. But I think it is the most interesting question in the entire debate. Grundmann claims that the GWPF can be easily defined. But it would seem he has much trouble defining it, to the point that he couldn’t answer a question about its putative transformation, reflected in the publication of Lewis and Crok.

As is discussed here often, the most powerful misconception of the climate debate is that is divides on the proposition ‘climate change is happening’. This is presented as a scientific claim, though when one tries to understand what it means, and what its consequences are, unpacking it reveals that it means precisely nothing, and the consequences might mean anything between a trivial change in the weather, through to the collapse of civilisation and the end of all life on Earth. This ambiguity turns nuanced arguments and analyses into cartoons, and would seem to put Lewis and Crok opposite the GWPF, who have published broad criticism of climate policy and also of some particular scientific questions. Worse, this tendency allows politics or ‘ideology’ to be presented as ‘science’, and so to preclude debate. All Ed Davey has to do, for instance, to wave away criticism of his energy policy is claim that it is the expression of denial of climate science. Grundmann’s thinking is no more sophisticated.

Yet Grundmann’s academic profile claims that his interests are,

Sociotechnical Systems, Social Philosophy, Power (social), Political Science, Economic Sociology, Political Sociology, Pure Sociology, Social Theory, Comparative Politics, Climate Change, Sustainable Transportation, Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Global Environmental Governance, Science and technology studies, and Environmental Sustainability

How do political sociologists develop such blind spots in the climate debate, such that publishing a “lukewarm” report means a tiny organisation with few resources has radically altered its presumed position? The presumption is the key. If the GWPF had stated a position on the necessity of political action with respect to the magnitude of climate sensitivity prior to Lewis and Crok, Grundmann would be right to demand some revision of it, or remain ‘IPCC-bashers’. But I’m fairly sure that what concerns the GWPF’s members is the same as what has concerned this blog over the last seven years:

1. That climate’s sensitivity to CO2 is not equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate.
2. That political and scientific arguments are routinely confused.
3. That scientific expertise is used to prevent political debate about important questions.
4. That institutional science has allowed itself to be colonised by political agendas.

This blog has never taken a particular view on climate science. The criticism here is of environmentalism, broadly defined as a political phenomenon, in which the above problems (1-4) are epitomised. Yet it finds itself categorised as a blog for ‘scepticism’ or ‘denial’. This is all anyone seems to need to know.

The blind spot is a phenomenon that political sociologists ought to be conscious of, and to make an object of their study. I pointed out the problem to Grundmann on twitter, passing him a link to a new study coming out of the Tyndall Centre:

What is climate change scepticism? Examination of the concept using a mixed methods study of the UK public
Capstick, S., and N. Pidgeon

The holding of doubts about climate change is often referred to as ‘scepticism’. However, there has been a lack of clarity in previous work as to what exactly this scepticism comprises. We integrate data obtained from discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, to interrogate and refine the concept of climate change scepticism with respect to the views of members of the public. We argue that two main types should be distinguished: epistemic scepticism, relating to doubts about the status of climate change as a scientific and physical phenomenon; and response scepticism, relating to doubts about the efficacy of action taken to address climate change. Whilst each type is independently associated by people themselves with climate change scepticism, we find that the latter is more strongly associated with a lack of concern about climate change. As such, additional effort should be directed towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change. © 2013 The Authors.

What is much more interesting to this “climate sceptic” than any claims about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’ is the implication of Capstic and Pidgeon’s abstract, that it is their role, as academics, to direct ‘additional effort … towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change’.

Imagine, for example, that researchers at a school of psychology at a university had authored a paper that aimed to understand why people voted for a particular mainstream political party, which then suggested ways that interventions might be made to encourage them to vote for another. NB, I am not suggesting here that researchers should not be allowed to have such biases, or even that the academy should not be a place where people are able to develop persuasive political ideas — on the contrary. But there is something weird about this form of ‘research’ which aims to change the dynamics of debates about public policy in this way.

Capstic and Pidgeon’s paper, like many investigations into climate scepticism — Lewandowsky’s, for instance — makes it an object of study rather than the ground of a debate. In table two, for example, they identify a list of 20 expressions of scepticism:

* There is too much conflicting evidence about climate change to know whether it is actually happening
* Current climate change is part of a pattern that has been going on for millions of years
* Climate change is just a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperatures
* Even if we do experience some consequences from climate change, we will be able to cope with them
* The effects of climate change are likely to be catastrophic
* The evidence for climate change is unreliable
* There are a lot of very different theories about climate change<comma> and little agreement about which is right
* Scientists have in the past changed their results to make climate change appear worse than it is
* Scientists have hidden research that shows climate change is not serious
* Climate change is a scam
* Social/behavioural scepticism measures
* Climate change is so complicated, that there is very little politicians can do about it
* There is no point in me doing anything about climate change because no-one else is
* The actions of a single person doesn’t make any difference in tackling climate change
* People are too selfish to do anything about climate change
* Not much will be done about climate change, because it is not in human nature to respond to problems that won’t happen for many years
* It is already too late to do anything about climate change
* The media is often too alarmist about climate change
* Environmentalists do their best to emphasise the worst possible effects of climate change
* Climate change has now become a bit of an outdated issue
* Whether it is important or not, on a day-to-day basis I am bored of hearing about climate change

There’s plenty of material coming out of Cardiff to occupy political sociologists. But they seem more interested in the putative transformation in the GWPF than in reflecting critically on the new role of academics, and the diminished understanding of the public.Rather than positions to be argued with, the entries on this table are taken as merely arbitrary expressions of some kind of irrational motivation. But the consequence of this is that, far from developing an understanding of ‘what scepticism is’, the researchers only engage with their own prejudices. There is no dialogue. They aim to sample scepticism, by analysing sceptics (which ones?) comments, but only end up sampling their own heads, rather than testing the categories and ideas they have developed. Thus, Capstic and Pidegon tell us more about themselves than about sceptics.

Grundmann, Capstic, Pidgeon, Lewandowsky, The SMC, McGrath, and Ward, although their tones and their general approaches to the climate debate differ, cannot help but merely reproduce their own ignorance of their subjects. The GWPF’s position is a mystery to them. So when it becomes obvious that there is lukewarmism amongst the GWPF fold, the coordinates on which that ignorance rested are disturbed. Rather than seeing the ignorance as the cause of that disturbance, it appears as a radical shift in the position of the GWPF. In the same way, a dizzy person sees the world spinning. If sceptics were taken more seriously, if there was a debate… if there was a political, or academic culture which accepted debate… Cardiff wouldn’t produce such rank pseudo-science, and social scientists in Nottingham could be more confident about the definition of ‘space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse’, but probably would chose his words — and his coordinates — more carefully.

What space?

What ecosystem?

What discourse?

What bullshit!

Lewandowsky Nails his Faeces to the Door

Posted by Ben Pile on February 21, 2014
Feb 212014

Over at Lewandowsky’s lair, Shaping Tomorrow’s World, the academic-psychologist-turned-propagandist has set out his values…

Part of my research is considered controversial by some people because I examine why individuals choose to reject well-established scientific findings, such as the fact that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a bad opening shot from the professor. Lewandowsky does not ‘examine why individuals choose to reject well-established scientific findings’. Few that Lewandowsky has claimed ‘reject’ the claim that ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’ in fact reject the claim at all. Lewandowsky’s research invariably depends on the idea that any criticism of any aspect of climate change, from science through to policy, is a rejection of the claim. But this is misleading. Moreover, and has been observed here many times, the claims that ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’, is not scientific. It lacks any precision. It can mean anything from an inconsequential amount of warming, through to changes that will bring about the end of civilisation. Lewandowsky’s propagandising has to omit any sense of proportion, because admitting that climate change is not just a matter of degree, but matters of degree on matters of degree precludes the possibility of making polarising statements and moralistic claims, which are his intentions.

I believe that science has served us well during the last century or so. For example, the number of lives that were saved through research into HIV/AIDS is staggering—a fact tragically highlighted by the unnecessary death toll in South Africa when the government of then-President Mbeki rejected scientific medicine and preferred to treat AIDS with beetroot and garlic.

And here we already see the problem emerge. What role can psychology play, in trying to understand why Mbeki would make such a statement? I don’t believe it can shed any light on it at all. And Lewandowsky sheds not one single photon on this, or any other question he seems to have tasked himself with. What does Lewandowsky know about Mbeki, and the complex politics and history of South Africa? For that matter, what does Lewadowsky know about climate change sceptics? He won’t respond to their criticisms, and it is evident from his work that he doesn’t even read them. His refusal to understand the debate he comments on even leads him to put mainstream climate scientists into the same category as ‘deniers’.

Nonetheless, science takes place in a social context and is not value neutral. For example, I do not share the values of the late Dr. Edward Teller, an advocate of using nuclear devices to build harbours in Alaska (among other things), who possibly inspired the movie character Dr. Strangelove.

Congratulations to Lewandowsky for recognising the fact that ‘science takes place in a social context’. Might climate sceptics, and Mbeki not also exist in a social context? And might climate science, which is, after all, a very soft science, also exist in a social context?

He doesn’t say. But what are Lewandowsky’s ‘values’?

I value freedom of speech. In most instances, “bad” speech should be countered by good or better speech rather than being suppressed. It is for this reason that I have not taken action, thus far, against the clearly defamatory content of various internet blogs.

‘Thus far’, sounds like a threat. But it is as empty as his claim that ‘”bad” speech should be countered by good or better speech rather than being suppressed’. Lewandowsky has not responded to criticism of his work, and refuses to.

His second ‘value’ is:

I value academic freedom. This entails the freedom to publish research that some people find controversial or inconvenient. It is the responsibility of scientists to be rigorous in publishing and attempt to eliminate all errors and identify weaknesses in their work. Where these persist in published articles, it is the job of peer-review to correct those via published rejoinders.

Academic freedom is not damaged in any way by members of the public calling ‘bullshit’ on Lewandowsky’s claims. Academic freedom does not suffer when members of the public can see the work better than the peer-reviewers and the editors of a journal. And academic freedom is not undermined when people suggest that the paper be retracted. It is the point of peer review that poorly conceived and poorly executed research should not make it to publication.

Lewandowsky is complaining here about the attempts to obtain the raw data from his research, and about the questions raised about his method in recent papers. These problems have not been answered by Lewandowsky, nor by his publishers. Yet they are aware of the problems with his research. They have been told, but have ignored the criticism.

Lewandowsky’s statement of his ‘values’, then, amount to nothing more than an excuse.

Science is debate, and I have been participating in this debate for 30 years. I therefore welcome any critique of my work that survives peer review or is cogent in other ways or addressed through proper channels.

Here, Lewandowsky says that the only legitimate way of challenging his work is publishing criticism in academic journals, or some other ‘proper channel’ not explained. It is as if criticism of the claim that 2+2=5 could only come from another journal, not by anybody with a rudimentary grasp of arithmetic.

Lewandowsky wants to influence the public debate, both with his research and in his blog posts and other non-academic articles. Yet he then wants to hide behind the walls of the Academy when any of that work is criticised.

Because I value freedom of speech and academic freedom, I oppose and resist the bullying and intimidation employed by some opponents who refuse to engage in scientific debate by avoiding peer review. My thoughts and experiences are summarized in an article on the Subterranean War on Science.

Lewandowsky is not in a position to complain about bullying and intimidation. Many of Lewandowsky’s able critics do not have access to journals, nor to the academic resources usually necessary to publish in them, and much less the time. Lewandowsky’s argument is that only academics may criticise him — that the masses outside the academy have no legitimate argument to make. That is bullying in its simplest form, made worse by the fact that it is these individuals that Lewandowsky has made objects of his ‘research’. When they complain, he says ‘you’re not an academic, **** off’. The philosopher king holds himself in high esteem.

Inspired by some philosophers of ethics, I consider the rejection of climate science to be at least morally negligent and sometimes actively immoral. There is a crucial distinction between skepticism, which expresses itself in the peer-reviewed literature, and active rejection of scientific facts, which expresses itself in other fora and which does not seek peer review. People are entitled to question everything in good faith, but I do not believe they are entitled to spread disinformation or intentionally mislead the public. Opinions have ethical consequences.

‘Opinions’ having ‘ethical consequences’, only the privileged may possess them. Rank elitism hides behind scientific objectivity. It can’t be the case, on Lewandowsky’s view, that people who criticise him or the courses of action he wants to advance, do so in good faith, because they have a different understanding of The Science.

But as we have already seen, Lewandowsky does not have a sufficient grasp of climate science, or counter-positions to mainstream climate science, to say that others have an inadequate grasp. Hence, he has to reduce the scientific consensus to something meaningless — like ‘the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions’ — which is not even a contested claim.

Lewandowsky’s argument is not ‘ethics’, but is on the contrary, the total absence of ethics. ‘Science’ is a fig leaf.

I therefore perceive a moral obligation to conduct research into why people reject well-established scientific facts, be it climate change or the utility of vaccinations. This is my personal conviction, which other scholars are free to share or disagree with. To illustrate my position, Dr. Lawrence Torcello, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology, put it succinctly: “… Some issues are of such ethical magnitude that being on the correct side of history becomes a cipher of moral character for generations to come. Global warming is such an issue. History inevitably recognizes the moral astuteness of those loudly intolerant of ignorance and corruption. Those who offer polite hospitality to injustice must learn from history that they are complicit to the harms they enable.‎”

Only scholars are free to take issue with Lewandowsky, of course. Trying to find out why people do take a different view on all kinds of things, including science, is a worthwhile end. But that is not what Lewandowsky does. Instead, his work attempts to belittle people who take a different view to him, to say they are mad, or ‘conspiracy theorists’, without a full set of faculties, or are contaminated by ‘motivated reasoning’.

That is the opposite of finding out what people disagree about things. It’s just shouting at people who do disagree, albeit from the high walls of the academy.

If Lewandowsky was genuinely interested in why people take a different view on climate change, he wouldn’t attempt to understand them through bullshit and easily manipulated surveys on the internet, on sites hosted by his colleagues and comrades. He would instead ask them: ‘here’s what I think, why do you disagree?’

It’s called debate. Through he course of debate, the points of disagreement are discovered. That is the point of debate. There is no need for psychologists here.

In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed: I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature and that the public be put in a position where it can make an informed judgment about the voices that are opposing mainstream science on crucial issues ranging from climate change to vaccination.

Let us see more closely what Lewandowsky has said:

1) “In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed…”

And then…

2) “I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature…”

… and…

3) “and that the public be put in a position…”

verb: curtail; 3rd person present: curtails; past tense: curtailed; past participle: curtailed; gerund or present participle: curtailing
reduce in extent or quantity; impose a restriction on.
“civil liberties were further curtailed”

Arguments 2 and 3 are explicitly for a curtailing of debate absolutely, viz. the debate should only be between the anointed, and that a passive public only be exposed to its outcome- NOT allowed to take part in it.

All that remains to be said about Lewandowsky is that, if he isn’t liar, he is master of self-deception.

Either way, it is bad faith that motivates his ‘reasoning’.

The video of the debate at last year’s Battle of Ideas festival on the question “What is new environmentalism?” is online.

I’m not sure that between Mark Lynas, Joe Smith, and Casper Hewitt and me, we got to an answer. But some interesting things were discussed on the way. I had a good chat with Joe afterwards over a couple of beers. However, I sense that neither he nor Mark still have any idea about why people might object to environmentalism in a broader sense, or might be critical of the claims made about climate change. This is odd, because Lynas is a fairly able critic of old environmentalism, especially the attitude to GMOs and to nuclear power. And Joe Smith, at least seems to understand that the climate debate is about more than climate science.

Kudos to them, however, for agreeing to the challenge of debate with people of a different perspective, unlike their erstwhile comrades in the dinosaur environmental movement, like this mad woman.

Missing Heat – Spiked

Posted by Ben Pile on February 13, 2014
Feb 132014

I have a very short (even by my standards) piece up on Spiked about the claims that the missing heat has been found:

A mainstay of environmentalists’ arguments for climate policies is that science can explain the past and present temperature of the planet, and, using computer models, project its likely future temperature. But, since the late 1990s, observations of temperature have deviated from models. The Earth is not as warm as it was expected to be. For many years, this deviation was denied, but it has recently been accepted by mainstream science. This is progress. But it has proven to be inconvenient to the political agendas attached to the climate-change narrative. In response, many theories have been proposed to explain where the ‘missing heat’ may be hiding out.

Read more at Spiked.

I remain mostly agnostic about climate change science. But it seems obvious that this new research is, to use the climate change communicator’s vernacular, ‘motivated’ by political need. That’s not to say that Matthew England is wrong. He might be right. But it does show in fact, that climate scepticism — even if it is ‘motivated’ (and only motivated to the same extent as its counterpart) — does contribute to the production of good climate science. This is a point I made, but which didn’t make it to the final article…

After all, if sceptics hadn’t made such an issue of the lack of warming, perhaps England would not have been moved to find a way to wrong-foot them. Maybe climate science needs climate sceptics, and climate researchers, like England, should welcome their criticisms.

Feb 092014

I doubt that Donna Laframboise needs much of an introduction here. She was in London recently to give evidence to the UK House of Commons Energy and Climate Change select committee, and while here, generously agreed to meet me for a quick chat about some of the things we’re both particularly interested in about the climate debate. Especially her experience at the recent COP meeting in Warsaw.

This video is a bit of an experiment for this blog, but if it goes well, I hope I’ll be producing some more. Please share, link and comment.

Climate Sceptics: The Phantom Menace

Posted by Ben Pile on February 8, 2014
Feb 082014

At the Guardian this week (yes there, again), David Robert Grimes claimed,

Denying climate change isn’t scepticism – it’s ‘motivated reasoning’
True sceptics test a hypothesis against the evidence, but climate sceptics refuse to accept anything that contradicts their beliefs

Grimes, a medical physics researcher at Oxford channels a lot of the guff that is passed off as ‘research’ into the phenomenon of climate scepticism. In particular, Grimes cites Stephan Lewandowsky’s ridiculous, unscientific and poorly-executed magnum opus:

The problem is that the well-meaning and considered approach hinges on the presupposition that the intended audience is always rational, willing to base or change its position on the balance of evidence. However, recent investigations suggests this might be a supposition too far. A study in 2011 found that conservative white males in the US were far more likely than other Americans to deny climate change. Another study found denialism in the UK was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values. A series of investigations published last year by Prof Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues – including one with the fantastic title, Nasa Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science – found that while subjects subscribing to conspiracist thought tended to reject all scientific propositions they encountered, those with strong traits of conservatism or pronounced free-market world views only tended to reject scientific findings with regulatory implications.

Well, if white, male, American conservatives believe something, it must be wrong. Meanwhile, of course, as I and many others have demonstrated, there was a great deal wrong with Lewandowsky’s work. No matter though, because as long as a bullsh*t survey can be turned into an article to be published in a journal, it must be true, no matter the criticism of it… Probably from white, conservative males. The scientific consensus on climate change soon reveals itself to in fact be little more than a social prejudice.

Grimes continues…

It should be no surprise that the voters and politicians opposed to climate change tend to be of a conservative bent, keen to support free-market ideology. This is part of a phenomenon known as motivated reasoning, where instead of evidence being evaluated critically, it is deliberately interpreted in such a way as to reaffirm a pre-existing belief, demanding impossibly stringent examination of unwelcome evidence while accepting uncritically even the flimsiest information that suits one’s needs.

This, of course, is an argument that, in lieu of a perfectly-calibrated mind-reading machine, is unscientific, through and through. Although we might notice that people’s arguments tend to coincide with their preferences, the hypothesis that the preference exists before the reasoning is untestable bunk. Moreover, although it appears to privilege reason, by denying that the objects of the hypothesis are capable of it, in turn deny the value of reason. Even more moreover, positing that one putative side of a debate lacks the necessary faculty to make rational choices forgets the influence of ideology over the counter-position. As I have argued before, if one takes a robust view of individuals faculties, and of course in wider society, one might well take a different view of the scientific evidence. For example, environmental ideologues evince a view of the world which holds that: i) the world is fragile; ii) the world provides; iii) the relationship between the world and people is delicately balanced. Those claims are not scientific. They are presuppositions. They are also, in large part, mystical in origin. And they are categorically anti-human, in the sense that they do not necessarily privilege human experience in their reasoning and in their deeper philosophical ideas (such as they are). It follows that one or two degrees warming is, on one view, fatal, catastrophic. And on the other view, perhaps a problem in particular times and places.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a low-rent activist-journalist writes about the other side of the debate in such a way. However, his Guardian profile claims ‘He has a keen interest in the public understanding of science’. No he doesn’t. He wants to use science to achieve a particular political end, and he doesn’t care if he — in the amateur PUS/STS vernacular — ‘abuses science’ and confuses the public in the process. Science is a weapon — a point I will return to later.

Debates, like consensuses, have an ‘object’. Let’s say there is a debate about the proposition ‘all apples are green’. The proposition is the ‘object’. Let’s imagine that all the apples studied thus far are green. Thus, the consensus is that all apples are green’. But some scientists and interested folk take the view that, although all apples are green, there’s nothing about apples that means they have to be green. Carrots used to be purple (I am told). We might one day see a red apple, say the sceptics of the consensus. If you shut your eyes, you wouldn’t notice the difference. The debate, although it is dominated by the consensus view, now divides on a very particular grounds, about which it is very hard indeed to get excited about.

Granted, it is an absurd example. But let’s stick with it. It tells us something about consensuses and debates. They are about something. They are about the colours of apples, or they are about the value of X, or they are about the best way to organise society.

Grimes’s account of the debate, however, does NOT give us any information about the object of the debate. It says this, of course…

The grim findings of the IPCC last year reiterated what climatologists have long been telling us: the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and we’re to blame. Despite the clear scientific consensus, a veritable brigade of self-proclaimed, underinformed armchair experts lurk on comment threads the world over, eager to pour scorn on climate science. Barrages of ad hominem attacks all too often await both the scientists working in climate research and journalists who communicate the research findings.

… But to what extent is the debate defined by the claim that ‘the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate’? Is this even the object of the consensus? But worse, what is the counter-position — the claim that sceptics make in response?

The IPCC, of course, do not make quite such a claim. Grimes produces a grotesque and value-laden over-simplification. Of the thousands of lines of evidence evaluated by the IPCC, the response from the sceptics is not, as Grimes would have it, a simple negation of a single proposition, but instead consists of a range of criticisms and questions, about each of them.

Even if Grimes accurately presented the scientific consensus, he still doesn’t explain the debate, because he does not even attempt to explain the sceptic’s counter-position. There is no scientific debate in the world where this would be acceptable to the academic community. Yet this mythology persists, and is sustained, in large part by academics.

Grimes offers a crude, and entirely partial approximation of the consensus, because the extent of the consensus diminishes as it becomes specific. The broad consensus on climate change is inconsequential, thus activists like Grimes need to play fast and loose with it. Notice, for instance, that one account of the consensus (more accurate than Grimes’s) holds that ‘most of the warming in the second half of the twentieth century has been caused by man’, and does not exclude the majority of climate sceptics, who typically argue that the IPCC over estimates climate sensitivity. Moreover, notice that many sceptics do not take issue with the propositions that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, much of the increase in atmospheric CO2 can be attributed to industry, that this warming will likely cause a change in the climate, and that this may well cause problems. One of the biggest debates between sceptics and their counterparts is in fact the role played by feedback mechanisms — a response in part to claims by environmentalists such as Mark Lynas in ‘Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet’ that a relatively small increase in CO2 could cause ‘runaway climate change’ by triggering (unknown and possibly non-existent) feedback mechanisms to form.

The approximate consensus seems to serve, not inform the debate with science, but to supply it with moral coordinates in the environmental activists favour: you don’t need to know about the mechanics of CO2 or the climate; you only need to know that there are good guys and there are bad guys. To supply the debate with the actual consensus position and counter-position would deprive the moral argument of the utility that ambiguity offers. While it can be claimed that there is an other — an irrational, malign force — acting to subvert the debate, scientists and activists can seem to be on the same team. The moment the debate is deprived of its ambiguity, and supplied with actual data, it turns out that many activists, and indeed, scientists-cum-activists, are far further away from consensus position represented by the IPCC than are the putative ‘deniers’.

So, the ‘consensus without an object’ is a cohesive force. The environmentalists argument does not depend on science as much as it depends on depriving the debate — denying — of science.

This is to say that the ‘consensus’ has political, rather than practical utility: it is more useful to the task of mobilising towards ‘action on climate change’ than it is informing the debate about what kind of problem climate change is, and what the options for dealing with it are.

I have observed this before. In Naomi Oreskes’ work attempting to identify relationships between the ‘tobacco lobby’ and climate sceptics, she proposed that key individuals were ‘Merchants of Doubt’, and employed the same strategy — ‘the tobacco strategy’. As I wrote, back in 2008:

What Oreskes seems to forget is that doubt, rather than being generated by the “denialists”, has long been at the very core of environmental politics. Consider the following statement, which is part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, agreed at the Earth Summit…

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

[...]What matters to Oreskes is not the substance of scientific understanding, but an isolated, binary fact that “climate change is happening”. From here, “climate change” can mean anything. Once it has been established as a “fact”, it doesn’t matter what science says, because the doubt incubates the imagination better than certainty, and prohibits scientific expertise from undermining the power of the nightmare.

The Precautionary Principle operates just as the ‘consensus without an object’. It is not the facts of the matter that count. To define the problem of climate change means turning climate change into a merely technical problem, rather than a problem in which the parameters can be constantly shifted, for political ends. Oreskes epitomises the phenomenon of mobile goalposts by claiming that the movement which had for so long been grounded in the precautionary principle had instead been formulated on the basis of certainty. Perhaps more fatal for Oreskes is that any debate that seems to proceed from a scientific claim is going to take the form that she describes, of a proposition and doubts about its soundness.

Coincidentally, Lewandowsky and Cook have been channelling Oreskes 2008 work this week, at The Conversation:

So why are tobacco control measures now in place in many countries around the world? Why has the rate of smoking in California declined from 44% to less than 10% over the last few decades? Why can we now debate the policy options for a further reduction in public harm, such as plain packaging or tax increases?

It is because the public demanded action. This happened once the public realised that there was a scientific consensus that tobacco was harmful to health. The public wants action when they perceive that there is a widespread scientific agreement.

The argument defeats itself, of course. The public neither demanded action to stop smoking, and it didn’t demand action on the basis of ‘widespread scientific agreement’. If the public really hated smoking so much, it wouldn’t need the intervention. There is widespread scientific agreement that hitting yours head with a hammer is a bad idea. But curiously, there is no law banning people from hitting themselves with hammers. It is understood, widely, that people’s own sense of self prevents them from hitting themselves with hammers, and that where this faculty fails, there are bigger problems at play. There also existed, for a long time, that even in spite of the known risks caused by smoking, that it was a pleasurable thing for the smoker, and that he or she was capable of taking his own risks. If there was a shift in public mood, it had much less to do with ‘science’ than it had to do with the fact that smoking can be an nuisance to others, and possibly a fire risk in certain environments, and a health risk to people with certain conditions. Lewandowsky and Cook, like Oreskes, re-write history to make a political argument in the present…

A scientific consensus is necessary to understand and address problems that have a scientific origin and require a scientific solution. The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions. When the public comes to understand the overwhelming agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, acceptance of the science and support for climate action increase.


In a recent article, Mike Hulme argued that the debate “needs to become more political, and less scientific”. We agree, because the scientific debate has moved on from the fundamentals – there is no scientific debate about the fact that the globe is warming from human greenhouse gas emissions. So we need to hammer out political solutions rather than “debating” well-established scientific facts.

Hulme also suggested that, in reference to a paper by John Cook, “merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it.”


When Hulme queries the value of consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed literature, he has it backwards in two important ways.

Closing the consensus gap is an important step towards the public debate about climate policy which he rightly calls for. The problem is the attack on climate science and the overwhelming consensus, not the research supporting it.

Straight from the horses mouth… the ‘consensus’ has political, rather than practical utility: The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Lewandowsky and Cook were responding to Mike Hulme’s essay on the same website, ‘Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change’. Hulme was clear about his view of Cook’s attempt to measure the extent of the consensus,

A paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.


In the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it? Scientific consensus is not much help here. Even if one takes the Cook study at face value, then how does a scientific consensus of 97.1% about a fact make policy-making any easier?

Lewandowsky and Cook believe that it will make it easier because the more people who ‘believe in climate change’, the more there is apparent pressure on government to act on it. But this is naive.

First, at least as far as the UK public is concerned, policy action has proceeded not just in spite of the public’s indifference to the climate issue, but perhaps because of its general indifference to politics. Climate change has risen up the political agenda as politics has become professionalised, and managerial in character, leaving the public with less democratic choice, and public debate deprived with contested values. The political crisis that this disinterest might cause has been largely offset by borrowing the cultural authority of science — science as a weapon. The idea of managing public affairs according to the ‘best available evidence’ always sounds good. Like ‘motherhood and apple pie’. But politics isn’t about responding to the ‘evidence’. It is about contested values about how society should be organised. A dearth of ideas to contest leaves a bloated public sector in dire straits, and so scientists are recruited to give just one message: do as they say or your children will die. Arguments for ‘action on climate change’ are invariably arguments for the accretion of power away from the demos. Lewandowsky and Cook do not argue for the ‘consensus gap’ to be closed in order that the public demand their politicians take notice; they make the argument for the consensus in order to deprive the public of democracy, whether or not Lewandowsky are aware of it.

Second, Lewandowsky and Cook miss the point that there is a difference between knowing there’s a consensus and knowing what the consensus consists of. I say they miss the point. But they do know that explaining what the consensus is, and what sceptics’ arguments are, would be to give a hostage to fortune. The political argument is invested too heavily in the science, the object of which — the natural world — has a habit of confounding expectations. Especially environmentalists’ expectations, who, throughout the second half of the 20th century, prophesied civilisation’s immanent collapse in a new way every five or ten years… Silent springs, overpopulation, resource depletion, ozone depletion, acid rain… climate change. There is still political utility in these scare stories, but there is less inclination to express a view about when they will become reality. To admit to shades of grey would be to limit the political utility.

So, sceptics, in the arguments from the likes of Lewandowsky and Cook in the debate about the consensus without an object take the form of objectless consensuses. Climate sceptics are, in the arguments of Lewandowsky and Cook, like ghosts: they are the subject of lots of stories, but they do not exist. They do not have names. They do not have ideas or arguments. They are intended only to haunt the imaginations of climate activists… To fill them with horror, rather than to face reality. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

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