Someone else who isn’t entirely wrong this week is Lord Bob May of Oxford. It’s quite refreshing to hear the former Royal Society president and government chief-scientific adviser having a go at Big Environment for a change instead of Big Oil:
Parts of the green movement have become hijacked by a political agenda and now operate like multinational corporations, according to two senior scientists and members of the House of Lords.
The peers, who were speaking at an event in parliament on science policy, said they felt that in some areas green campaign groups were a hindrance to environmental causes.
“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May
He’s certainly right that the green movement is a political movement. But it’s an observation from the realm of the startlingly obvious. It’s a movement. Take away the politics and it ceases to exist. May and his fellow peer Lord Krebs seem to be imagining some sort of ideal politics-free… erm… politics.
May [added] that he used to be involved with Greenpeace in the 1970s
What on Earth did they think the green movement was, back in the good-old days, before it got all ‘political’? They don’t say.
May might be a great scientist, but he’s a bad Scientist. As a Scientist – by which we mean, someone who practises Scientism – May is under the impression that his views are merely an extension of ‘the science’ – as if he were the vessel for pure scientific objectivity, and above mere politics. Politics by simultaneous equation. Trouble is, not only are May’s facts often spectacularly wrong, so too is his habit of hiding orthodox environmental politics behind them.
Through his criticism of his fellow Scientists, Greenpeace, May betrays the folly of Scientism. When Scientists disagree, they can only resort to accusing each other of politics. Because politics is what people who are wrong do. After all, you can’t have different views among people who are guided only by the science. And the way you show people are guilty of politics is to show they’ve got their facts wrong. Greenpeace went wrong, it seems, when they let their politics get in the way of May’s version of the facts.
May also criticised green groups who campaign against initiatives such as wind farms and the Severn tidal barrage scheme, while also proclaiming the need to tackle climate change. He said such groups were “failing to recognise the landscape is human-created”.
He might be right that greens harbour an aversion to anything ‘unnatural’. But he is wrong to think that, to see the light over alternative energy, they just need a few facts pointing out to them. After all, if the landscape is human-created, what could be wrong with a human-created atmosphere?
Moreover, the bulk of the opposition to alternative energy comes not from green groups, but from run-of-the-mill objections that just happen to make use of the very environmental language in currency – ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘sustainability’ – that May himself has been promoting. This language has, as we have pointed out here on Climate Resistance, been used to reorganise many and varied aspects of public life. Local government services and plans have all been adjusted to meet the demands of ‘sustainability’ and climate change anxiety. Property developers have painted themselves green. What’s left of British industry has been painted green. So it should be no surprise then that the objections to them are also framed in the same terms. They aren’t green enough. They aren’t sustainable. They will damage fragile ecosystems.
May complains that Greenpeace should be more honest about their political agenda:
“I wish they would wear the uniform of the army they are fighting [under],” said May
But May himself wears several layers of different uniform underneath his tightly-buttoned ‘senior-scientist’ regalia. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, May demands respect for them, and uses them as a stick to beat down insubordination, within and without the ranks, as this interview revealed:
We have to confront this threat,’ says May. ‘Unfortunately the media all too often does this in a way that relegates the most important issue facing our species as if it was a soccer match between two competing sides of equal strength. It’s not. If you want to compare it [the debate over the existence of global warming] to a football match, it is more like Manchester United taking on three primary school children. It is as ridiculous as that.
On one hand, you have the entire scientific community and on the other you have a handful of people, half of them crackpots. Nevertheless, this is still presented as an unresolved battle. That is simply not true. It has been resolved. Only the details of climatic change’s impact have still to be worked out.’
May has lost count of the players in his war/football fantasy. This isn’t a game of two sides, because, for a long time, May has been fighting his own war with deeper Greens. The battle line was drawn across England’s fields – not football fields, but fields where genetically modified crops were being trialled and trashed.
Before his stint as President of the Royal Society, May was appointed by the UK government to lead an investigation into the safety of GM food. But, according to the Guardian, he was also…
… being paid by a leading GM company, it emerged last night.
Bob May and Alan Dewar of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, an organisation subsidised by the government, were appointed in June to help lead a team of “world-class scientists” to look at the potential adverse impacts of the farm trials.
…Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for the scientists’ resignation and the winding up of the farm-scale trials, several of which have been partly destroyed by anti-GM activists and one of which was abandoned by the farmer.
Things got worse for May when scientists broke ranks:
… the British Medical Association (BMA) announced it believed gene foods were a potential danger to health, particularly those involving the use of antibiotic-resistant genes. ‘On the basis of no evidence any actual harm,’ as New Scientist noted, the BMA then called for a ban on such crops because they could increase antibiotic resistance in humans.
It was this notion that began Bob May’s lachrymous uncertainties. ‘Christ, we have rising antibiotic resistance because the bloody members of the BMA have been oversubcribing penicillin for every damn illness you can think of. It’s got nothing to do with GM food.’
This was a PR disaster, exacerbated by May’s anger and impatience.
In vain, do scientists such as Sir Robert point out that modified crops actually reduce [pesticide] use. ‘It is simple common sense. Modified seeds cost more than normal seeds. So why the fuck would farmers want to have them if they also used up more pesticides which also cost money?’
He had tried to sell the potential of GM positively, but failed comprehensively, telling MPs in 1999 that:
there are real social and environmental choices to be made… They are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of world we want to live in…. There is a huge potential market for new GM ‘agrifood’ in Europe.
This kind of world, argued George Monbiot, was one in which scientists were instrumental in an an ‘economic war against the poor’ – good science wasn’t necessarily ‘good’.
The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people but not the infrastructure, practice “good” science, subjected to peer review. They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the same approach appears to govern many of the nation’s biology labs.
For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are fighting on the wrong side.
But Monbiot’s distance from Scientism diminished substantially over the next decade, as Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill noted last year:
Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).
May lost the battle over GM crops. But he learned a valuable lesson. The potential benefits that science offered weren’t persuasive in the face of the fear that the environmental movement was capable of generating. It was too easy to turn any argument about the potential of science into an argument that favoured business interests. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Science would assert its influence, not by constructing positive visions of the future, but by selling itself as the only insurance policy against certain doom. ‘The kind of world we want to live in’ ceased to be a matter of choice, or even about ‘safety as such’. There was now only one course – survival, and its terms were to be dictated by science. Monbiot and May seemed to agree.
Now, of course, even Greenpeace are likely to cite Bob May’s views on the climate debate:
Last year the UK’s prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, wrote to Exxon asking them to stop funding the groups who were “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”. Exxon indicated to the Royal Society that they had – and they would. In February this year Exxon did a big public relations round of the media, saying it had been “misunderstood” on climate change and gave the clear indication that it had dropped its funding of the climate sceptic industry.
And more curiously, May uses the very same argument about industry funding that Greenpeace was throwing at him in the late 1990s, citing their efforts to ‘expose Exxon’. Greenpeace quotes May quoting Greenpeace on Exxon.
The scientific establishment and grubby eco-warriors converged, speaking each others’ language: science gave plausibility to the environmental movement’s darkest fantasies, and the environmentalists’ nightmares gave science a legitimising raison d’etre. But as May’s confusion about which army’s colours Greenpeace are wearing reveal, the convenience of this entente is not lasting. The side/football team/army that May found himself on is itself at least two, with different interests, and different ambitions that no longer appear to be mutually expedient.
Catastrophism is not the only argumentative tack that Bob May, and the Royal Society in general, have borrowed from the greens. In the days of the GM Wars, when environmental groups were hailing Arpad Pusztai’s infamous study on toxic potatoes as proof that GM food was harmful to health, the Royal Society, under May’s leadership, was bending over backwards to dismiss it as a single, unreplicated piece of evidence. And it was. But ten years later, in his desperation to drive home the prospect of climate catastrophe to unbelievers, he cites single, unrepresentative, worst-case studies with abandon – re-framing them along the way in order to remove any suggestion that they might not be the last word on the matter. In fact, he cites with abandon Lord Stern citing with abandon a single, unrepresentative, worst-case study of climate-change threats to biodiversity. No, worse, he mis-cites Stern with abandon – surreptitiously and wholly dishonestly chopping the middle out of the quoted section to achieve the full effect.
The shifting positions of scientists and pressure groups in environmental debates is illustrated further by comments by May and Krebs in the parliamentary event we started with. Krebs, for example, is happy to denigrate Greenpeace as scaremongers:
Lord Krebs, the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency and current principal of Jesus College Oxford also criticised Greenpeace, saying that it had been set up to peddle fear on environmental issues. “Greenpeace is a multinational corporation just like Monsanto or Tesco. They have very effective marketing departments… Their product is worry because worry is what recruits members,” he said.
But some scaremongering is more equal than others:
He added that in some areas, such as warning about the effects of climate change, such an approach was justified, but that Greenpeace sometimes chose the wrong issues – for example, nuclear power and GM crops.
May echoes these sentiments:
May said parliamentarians had not done enough to prepare the public for the effect climate change would have on their lives in terms of efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes.
“I think there has been a problem of communication,” he said. “For some, I think it’s the desire not to confront the issue.” But, he said, the smoking ban had showed, for example, that public attitudes could change rapidly.
The smoking ban did not change attitudes. All it did was to prevent the expression of attitudes – there is no choice. It hasn’t made people less tolerant of smoking, it’s just made smoking illegal in public spaces. It is a deeply confused lawmaker who cannot tell the difference between a law and an attitude.
This confusion represents the heart of the problem of May’s scientism. If you merely view ‘attitudes’ as equivalent to holding so many wrong or right ‘facts’, then it stands to reason that winning the argument consists of no more than barking right facts at the wrong. This harks back to a prehistoric view of science communication that the Royal Society itself has played no small part in dispelling. It is a return to the deficit model, whereby the unenlightened masses just need to know more about the science in order to come to the ‘correct’ conclusions. The last couple of decades have seen a shift away from this unidirectional Public Understanding of Science to a more conversational Public Engagement with Science model. And yet it is striking that, while the Royal Society has embraced public engagement exercises over nanotechnology and, to an extent, genetic modification (although only after the horse had bolted), when it comes to climate change, conversations are conspicuous by their absence. The only conversations that the Royal Society takes part in on climate change are with those who already agree. It’s little surprise that there has been no formal attempt to engage the public in conversation when the majority of the electorate remain unconvinced by climate change rhetoric.
May attempts to side-step this particular pitfall by claiming that wrong facts about climate change are only held because they were put there by the wrong people – conspiracies of ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘, in May’s words.
‘Politics’ is thus reduced to the expression of wrong ‘facts’, resulting in the highly polarised battle between armies – or football teams – representing true (science) and false (politics). The whole business of politics is therefore a deviation from ‘the right facts’. Concomitant with such scientism is the view that being right is equivalent to being legitimate: the ‘consensus’/football team/truth-army legitimises the reorganisation of the world according to the demands of the environmentalists that are consistent with the Scientists’ own ambitions. What makes this necessary are the dire consequences of climate change, as dictated by ‘climate science’
Whatever the scientific truth of the claim, scientism’s argument amounts to an organising principle, the same as any other political ideology. Any normative proposition that demands that we change our lives must be treated as any other. That is to say, it needs to win its way to influence by persuasive and careful argument, and must endure hostile criticism. But that is not how the environmental movement has won its influence. Instead, men like May have captured the catastrophic drama that has been generated by the likes of Greenpeace and used it to legitimise new international and national political institutions and legal frameworks. Where political philosophies used to gain momentum – movement – through capturing the public’s imagination, and would assert ideas through such weight of numbers, today’s political players legitimise themselves with terrifying images.
Bob May might be unaware of his own contributions to the politicisation of science, but it is not lost on Patrick Moore, Director of Greenpeace International for seven years during the 1970s, the period of Bob May’s involvement with the group:
“It appears to be the policy of the Royal Society to stifle dissent and silence anyone who may have doubts about the connection between global warming and human activity,” said Dr. Moore, Chairman and Chief Scientist of Vancouver, Canada-based Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.
“That kind of repression seems more suited to the Inquisition than to a modern, respected scientific body,” said Moore.
May would no doubt argue that these shifting allegiances reflect no more than the ‘truth’ of ‘the science’ on offer from Greenpeace et al regarding these various areas.
Indeed, May’s erstwhile right-hand-man Bob Ward has argued just that:
during my early days at the Royal Society in 1999, the Society became involved in a major debate over GM foodstuffs, when it challenged a number of statements about their safety that were based on studies that had not been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. This made the Society the subject of much criticism from NGOs such as Greenpeace, which I think demonstrates that the Society is not partisan to particular interest groups.
That the Royal Society doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with businesses and Greenpeace may make it hard to identify the Royal Society’s sympathy with an existing interest group. But that doesn’t mean that interests and politics aren’t operating beneath the crusader-for-science costume. Even having the best scientific facts doesn’t guarantee the stainless moral fibre of their possessor. The curious thing about the last few decades’ eco-wars has been the way that all sides have attempted to portray themselves as being in possession of the best, least interested facts, and that the opposing viewpoints are tainted – perverted, even – by financial and political interest. But paradoxically, this has happened in an era characterised by a dearth of influence by political perspectives in debate. Since the late eighties, for example, it has been hard to identify the functioning of Left or Right arguments operating in the public sphere that owe anything to their traditions. Where once, such movements would have achieved prominence for their ideas precisely because they were political, and because they represented interests, today’s movements instead appeal to ‘science’ for legitimacy.
But as the GM wars showed, science hasn’t solved anything: the debate continues its descent. The arguments May produces, like Frankenstein’s own monster, escape his control. The interminable issue of funding, rather than demonstrating the purity of scientific objectivity, demonstrates the impossibility of such a perspective ever being achieved – even Lord May is ‘industry funded’. Scientific terminology – ‘sustainability’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’ – escape scientific context, to allow anyone to speculate what might happen ‘if trends continue’. The notion of ‘consensus’ becomes detached from its object, and allows anyone with a broadly sympathetic agenda to cite facts about opinion about facts as evidence of facts themselves.
This is no reflection on the usefulness of science itself. But that usefulness diminishes when it is puffed up for political purposes – ultimately to fill the void left by politics itself.
So, May might be giving a few sections of the green movement a bit of stick, but when it comes down to it, that Greenpeace et al have got their facts wrong has little to do with it. He pounces on them when their interests and politics diverge from his own. Which is why environmentalists can rest assured that they can keep on making up the facts about the climatastrophe as they go along without incurring the wrath of May or the Royal Society. In fact, the Royal Society gives out prizes for that sort of thing.
May has lost one battle against the forces of unreason. He doesn’t want to lose another one. He’s going to win on climate change, even if he has to lower himself and scientific institutions to the level of Greenpeace to do so. But in today’s world, neither are causes; they are both just symptoms.