The Royal Society: From Science to Fiction

Eco-activist Mark Lynas, has won the Royal Society’s prize for popular science writing, for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

Except that it isn’t science, it’s fiction. Science fiction; it takes a vaguely plausible scientific possibility, extrapolates it, and makes it the situation in which some form of drama plays out. For every one degree rise in temperature, Lynas considers what might happen to life on Earth.

Professor Jonathan Ashmore, Chair of the Judges said: “Lynas gives us a compelling and gripping view of how climate change could affect our world. It presents a series of scientifically plausible, worst case scenarios without tipping into hysteria. Six degrees is not just a great read, written in an original way, but also provides a good overview of the latest science on this highly topical issue. This is a book that will stimulate debate and that will, Lynas hopes, move us to action in the hope that this is a disaster movie that never happens. Everyone should read this book.”

‘Without tipping into hysteria’? Here are two versions of the front cover of the book,

The image on the left, like all clichéd science fiction, helps us to suspend disbelief by showing us an iconic landmark – Big Ben – ravaged by whatever the threat is supposed to be.

This is exactly what happened in the other global warming fantasy, The Day After Tomorrow (left). On the Right, we can see the Whitehouse being smashed by aliens. This kind image is used to inform us that the threat is to the order of the world. Our values, laws, institutions, organisations, and security are all threatened by whatever it is the science-fictionalist is writing about.

Of course, we should never judge a book by its cover. It would be unfair to claim that Jonathan Ashmore is wrong to claim that Lynas’s book isn’t ‘hysteria’, just on the basis of the book cover. Though, having said that, the cover does quote the Sunday Times, who say “… I tell you now, is terrifying”. We haven’t the time to review the book here. So here’s a couple of clips from the book, made into a film, featuring Lynas himself, to tell us what he imagines us to be facing.

Is this still ‘not hysteria’? We believe that it is, because, although Lynas appears to have ‘researched’ the ‘scientific evidence’, botching factoids leached from single-studies and worse case scenarios is not ‘sound science’, it is terrifying, and it hasn’t been subjected to any kind of scrutiny. Worse case scenarios are themselves necessarily science fiction – they have value not to science, but to prurient imaginations and politics. Detaching our treatment of them from the caveat that they are both worst-case, hypothetical treatments of very new, untested, unchecked, and unsubstantiated science is nothing but hysteria. Ashmore is highly misleading and dishonest in this regard. Merely saying that it is not hysteria doesn’t make it not so. Would he welcome, we wonder, a book which gave a best-case scenario treatment of the science, where humanity not only survives a 6 degree rise in temperatures, but positively thrives. No, he would not. Would it win any awards? The green movement would throw their toys out of the pram at such a book being published, let alone it being given such an accolade. They would call for it to be banned, claiming that it was ‘politically-motivated’, and misleading. There would be claims that its production had been paid for by Exxonmobil, by a scientist who had prostituted his intelligence and position for profit.

But this is not the first venture into fiction for the Royal Society and its members. It’s current president, Martin Rees wrote in 2004, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (sold in the UK as Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?) This is a bleak, miserable, pointless story about how our chances of surviving the next 100 years are just 50-50.

Also not against making things up is the previous president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford. Last year, we caught him making things up about Martin Durkin, director of the Great Global Warming Swindle.

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May told an audience in Oxford – where he shared a platform with Mark Lynas, interestingly – that Durkin had produced a series of 3 films denying the link between HIV and AIDS, for which Channel 4 were forced to apologise. That is untrue. Earlier last year, following an article reviewing 6 (also alarmist) books on the environment including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Nicholas Stern’s report, and George Monbiot’s Heat, we discovered that, inconveniently, May had taken a few liberties with the facts himself, citing a single study, referenced in the Stern Report to make the claim that ’15–40 per cent of species‘ were vulnerable to extinction at just 2 degrees of warming, and that oil companies were responsible for a conspiracy to spread misinformation, and prevent action on climate change. This was a double irony, because in the same article, he had translated the Royal Society’s motto – Nullius in Verba – as ‘respect the facts’, rather than the traditional ‘on the word of no one’. Indeed, had May followed the Royal Society’s own advice, he wouldn’t have been taking Stern’s, Monbiot’s, and Gore’s words for it. But rather than being the incredulous scientist, and subjecting these fictions to the scrutiny we’d expect, May used the groundless alarmism found in these texts to arm ‘science’ – or rather, the Royal Society – with new authority.

As we said in a letter to the TLS,

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority…

It seems that, rather than basing knowledge about the material universe on experimental evidence, the Royal Society and its senior members instead seek authority in science fiction; the extrapolation of superficially plausible science, forward into the future, where a drama plays out.

Mark Lynas first drew significant attention to himself for his views on climate change in 2001, when he threw a custard-pie into the face of Bjorn Lomborg, during a book launch.

Pie-man Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change. “I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face,” said Lynas, “in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.”

Many countries in the Third World are also experiencing the effects of climate change. In Africa, Lake Chad is now a twentieth of the size it was in the 1950s, leaving millions potentially without water. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is planning the evacuation of its entire population as sea levels continue to rise.

“And yet despite all this evidence,” comments Lynas, “Lomborg somehow contrives to argue that it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels than to switch to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. This feeds right into the agenda of profiteering multinationals like
Esso.” He continued: “I don’t see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense.

Now, however, Lynas the one-time circus-activist stuntman, has his childish perspective on the world given respectability by the establishment’s accolades, and has expensive films made about his dark fantasy.

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

Mark Lynas (left), with Bob May (right) at the Oxford is My World lectures, organised by Oxford City Council, to persuade its population to cut their CO2 emissions

Is Atheism Just Another Fundamentalism?

That’s the title of a debate on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Climate-Resistace editor Stuart was one of the speakers, with John Gray, Mark Vernon and Ron Ferguson. His talk went a bit like this…

Just so you know… I don’t believe in God. And I think science is a Good Thing. Science is one of the many fine products of the Enlightenment. It is the best way of exploring the material Universe we have. And it has transformed human lives for the better.

So I am not about to say that Atheism in general, and science in particular, is just another fundamentalism.

I will say, however, that certain atheists and scientists are becoming increasingly fundamentalist.

More specifically, I’d argue that while conventional religions are declining – at least in Europe – science is increasingly being used by certain groups – including sections of the scientific establishment itself – who are seeking to impose their own morality on the rest of us and to justify intolerance towards dissenting voices. And that this flies in the face of the very Enlightenment values from which science arose. And that this serves to close down healthy scientific and political debate, and, ultimately, hampers human progress.

I’d suggest that we have seen some fine examples of secular fundamentalism in the news this week. Anyone who has seen any coverage of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow will have seen the huge banner at the head of the procession: “We are armed … only with peer reviewed science.”

Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever put it more explicitly: “It’s not us saying you need to stop flying; it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.”

Of course there are no scientific studies that show that Heathrow shouldn’t have a third runway, like there are no scientific studies proving we should fly less. That is not the realm of science. What the science does tell us is that the world has been warming up recently and that anthropogenic carbon dioxide probably has quite a lot to do with it. It’s up to society at large to work out what to do with that information.

But the sort of talismanic use of scientific knowledge displayed at Climate Camp is fuelled, at least in part, by the scientific establishment itself.

For a start, the Royal Society – the UK’s premier scientific institution – has even started enshrining pre-Enlightenment values into its constitution. Its motto Nullius in verba has been translated since 1663 as “on the word of nobody”. The motto distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities. It stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. In the 21st century, however, the Royal Society has dropped that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, it is best translated as “Respect the facts”.

And which facts are we supposed to respect? Well, the Royal Society’s, of course. Hence the Society’s press release – headed “The Truth About Global Warming” – that accompanied their publication of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. Since when has a single scientific paper constituted “the truth”? The Royal Society is harking back to the days of scholasticism and its figures of authority.

This can only serve to close down the scientific debate, even though the scientific process is absolutely dependent on that debate, scrutiny of ideas, scepticism and argument to establish robust material truths.

Meanwhile, those who go against the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change – which is itself a very slippery entity to pin down – are labelled deniers or heretics, who are, we are told by the Royal Society, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil.

But some scientific fundamentalists go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain-old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded, maladapted or ill.

In an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics – this is less Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

OK, so these are extreme examples. But they aren’t really so different from more mainstream efforts to describe complex human behaviour in simplistic biological terms.

It’s hard to talk about scientific fundamentalism without mentioning Richard Dawkins. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science exemplifies such efforts. To quote: “We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy?”

The assumption here is that humans are biologically predisposed to the irrational – although only some human beings of course – the ones who are wrong.

Another tack that Dawkins takes is to write off religion and unreason to mind-controlling memes, hypothetical units of cultural selection that supposedly compete for space in the habitat of human brains. This posits religion and unreason as mind viruses. And the memes meme has caught on to an extent that is disproportionate to its scientific status. It has to date proven un-testable, and has zero explanatory power. This is not science; it is humanities-envy.

Again, that is contrary to the Enlightenment values of human agency and rationality. Because if ‘bad’ ideas are the products of parasitic memes, then why not the ‘good’ ones? The label of science is being used to escape the need to confront ideas politically. It betrays an unwarranted faith not in God, but in Nature, determinism, and in humans as mechanistic biological entities rather than social, rational ones who are both the products and the architects of civilisation.

Scientists have traditionally offered us a better, brighter future. And science has delivered. Now it seems that the best it can do is hope to make that future a less terrible one.

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society tells us in his book Our Final Century that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists can barely model the climate yet, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is President of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Give me a conventionally religious person with a positive vision for how we might go about creating a better future, any day, instead of those secularists who foretell the end of the world, who propound meme theory as an explanation for culture, or those at Climate Camp waving peer-reviewed scientific papers at the TV cameras.

I repeat – atheism is not just another fundamentalism. And nor is science. But, if it is going to continue being the invaluable tool for humanity that it has been since the Enlighte
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ent, it has to be very careful that it doesn’t become one.

Third time lucky?

A while ago now, we mentioned that the Royal Society had dropped from its website all reference to ‘on the word of no one’, the traditional translation of its motto Nullius in Verba, and that its former president, Bob May, had re-translated it as ‘respect the facts’. Well, the RS has since come up with a third possibility, which it has now added to its web page about the motto:

The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as ‘Nothing in words’, dates back to 1663…

Nothing in words. Indeed.

Spaghetti Carbondrama

This post doesn’t deserve a title as good as that. And it’s not even a very good title. Where does carbon come into it? Maybe we’re just hungry.

Apologies. We have each been otherwise engaged to the extent that we don’t appear to have posted very much. And even now, all we have time for is an amusing pasta-related introduction to Steve McIntyre’s Swindle and the IPCC TAR Spaghetti Graph at Climate Audit. Except we can’t think of one.

“If a practising scientist selected a 1987 data set over more recent versions, failed to cite it correctly, altered the appearance of the data without a clear explanation and didn’t include the data from the last 20 years then I think we’d all be asking serious questions about their professionalism.”

This was, of course, put forward in the context of Swindle, but surely IPCC is a bigger fish to fry. Let’s apply these principles to IPCC…

And he does. Compare and contrast and enjoy.

And it would be rude not to mention that we have a piece in spiked about Nullius in Verba: The Royal Society’s ‘motto-morphosis’

CR in TLS

We have a letter in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Bob May’s translation of Nullius in Verba. It’s not much different from our original post on the subject, except all the commas are in exactly the right place.

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

However, according to its website, the Royal Society seems now to prefer a different translation, one that is echoed in the title of “Respect the facts” (April 6), a review of seven recent publications on climate change, by Robert May, erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government. Facts are certainly worth respecting. However, there are facts, and there are “facts”, and many of the facts that May asks us to respect are, in fact, “facts”. May writes that “CO2 is, of course, the principal ‘greenhouse gas’ in the atmosphere”. That is wrong whichever way you look at it: water vapour has far more influence on the global greenhouse, and other gases – methane, for example – are more potent, measure for measure.

May quotes Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to demonstrate the devastating effects that global warming will have on species diversity (should Stern not be citing May on such matters?): “‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming”’. Not only does he quote Stern inaccurately (“Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15–40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming”), but the statement is a worst-case scenario based on a single study.

May is asking us to respect factoids and unrepresentative evidence dressed up as fact, yet he assures us that it is the oil companies that are “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”.

As for why the Royal Society should now prefer “respect the facts” to “on the word of no one”, perhaps, like any political organization, it would rather we trust the word of no one but itself.

On the Word of No One… Except Us

Nullius in Verba, the motto of the UK’s Royal Society, usually gets translated as ‘on the word of no one’. That’s a pretty good motto for a scientific body, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

However, in the TLS, Robert May, erstwhile President of the Royal Society (and ex-Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government), offers a different translation. Nullius in Verba ‘roughly translates’, he says, as ‘respect the facts’. Indeed, ‘Respect the facts’ is the title of May’s cover-story review of seven recent publications on climate change (although it is called ‘The world’s problem’ in the online version). This also seems to be the translation preferred these days by the Royal Society itself.

But why is ‘respect the facts’ better than ‘on the word of no one’?

We at Climate Resistance have no problem agreeing that evolution by natural selection or gravity are scientific facts. Hey, we’d even accept that it is a fact that atmospheric CO2 is a driver of the greenhouse effect.

But, there are facts, and there are ‘facts’. And many of May’s facts, are, in fact, ‘facts’.

For example: ‘CO2 is, of course, the principal “greenhouse gas” in the atmosphere’. That is wrong whichever way you look at it. It is in fact water vapour that contributes most to the greenhouse effect. And other gases – methane, for example – are more potent, measure for measure.

May quotes the Stern Review Report to demonstrate how climate change will lead to species extinctions (which is itself a rather blatant appeal to authority, given that Stern’s is an economic analysis rather than a scientific one):

Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming.

Is that a fact, too? It’s hard to say, because we cannot find that particular section in Stern. The closest match we can find is this:

‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15 – 40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming’ (part II, ch.3, p.56)

On the word of no one? Absolutely. Respect the facts? Of course. Respect the evidence? Yep, that too. But May is asking us to respect evidence dressed up as fact, when any scientist worth their salt should be encouraging us to challenge the evidence, and any GCSE science student would be able to.

So why the new translation? Why drop ‘on the word of no one’? Perhaps it is another example of a political body hiding healthy debate behind scientific certainties that do not exist. Or maybe the Royal Society, like any political body, would rather we trust the word of nobody but itself? May makes some noises about oil companies ‘misinforming the public about the science of climate change’. But May would appear to be doing a pretty good job of that himself. We’re not going to take his word for it.