Monbiot's Money Myopia

George Monbiot isn’t always entirely wrong. Writing in the Guardian yesterday:

Why is the Medical Research Council run by an arms manufacturer? Why is the Natural Environment Research Council run by the head of a construction company? Why is the chairman of a real estate firm in charge of higher education funding for England?

Because our universities are being turned into corporate research departments. No longer may they pursue knowledge for its own sake: the highest ambition to which they must aspire is finding better ways to make money.

Last month, unremarked by the media, a quiet intellectual revolution took place. The research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for academic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct. The councils define impact as the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy. But how do you demonstrate the impact of blue skies research before it has been conducted?

The increasingly cosy relationship between government, industry and the Academy (we’d throw activism in there, too) is certainly a problem. But that’s not to say Monbiot is entirely right.

First, his article is notable for what it leaves out. He could have added: Why is the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) chaired by the vice-president of a firm offering carbon-finance products? Or why is the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chaired by a businessman and green activist?

Second, this linear model of research that Monbiot complains about is also remarkably attractive to those at the top of institutional environmentalism. We reported, for example, on Sir David King’s advocacy for just such a linear model of research funding when he argued that the money spent on the Large Hadron Collider would be better spent saving the climate.

Moreover, since Lord Stern’s report on the economics of climate change, the ‘economic impact’ part of the equation that Monbiot scoffs at is increasingly central to the environmentalist research agenda. And it is Lord Stern himself who heads up the CCCEP, of course. The CCCEP’s own model of research is itself linear, as demonstrated by its mission statement:

Climate change and its potential impacts are increasingly accepted, but economic, social and political systems have been slow to respond. There is a clear and urgent need to speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to unavoidable climate change.

The Centre’s mission is to respond to this need by advancing public and private action on climate change through innovative, rigorous research.

But more than that, we have argued repeatedly here that, on environmental matters, the interests of government, industry, academia and pressure groups are remarkably similar. The only contingent that begs to differ, in fact, is the electorate. Which is why the CCCEP’s own linear research model is directed towards the specific goal of changing behaviour.

Monbiot complains that NERC is run by the head of a construction company. And yet that hasn’t stopped it reframing its activities under the banner of climate change and the like. From the front page of NERC’s website:

NERC funds world-class science in universities and our own research centres that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We are tackling the 21st century’s major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. We lead in providing independent research and training in the environmental sciences.

And meanwhile, obesity researchers, philosophers, historians and psychologists peer at the world through their own green-tinted spectacles.

In the rather more crude version of Monbiot’s argument, he claims that a conspiracy of oil interests has paid for the ‘distortion’ of science. Yet it turns out that the cash available to the alarmists – who more often than not make arguments that are well out of kilter with the ‘consensus’ position without drawing Monbiot’s criticism – exceeds the denialists’ efforts by several orders of magnitude. In this case too, Monbiot’s critical eye has too narrow a perspective. It’s okay for there to be a relationship between academia, private interest, and the state when it suits him. As we have said before, when you wear green spectacles, you cannot see anything that is painted green – greenwashed.

The issue here is clearly not merely commercial, as George seems to imply. The fact that well-connected people are able to turn their social status into cash is no surprise – it was ever thus. What is interesting is that where once we imagined academia to speak truth to power, it is increasingly expected to speak Official Truth®™ for power.

Green-Eyed Monsters

Few ecotastrophists will be disappointed that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has had to be shut down for at least a couple of months to fix a technical problem. Because, for a while there, the Greens’ perpetual thunder about the imminent thermageddon was stolen by newspaper headlines insisting that we couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that fundamental physics would get us first.

Environmentalists have more to be jealous of particle physics than that their end of the world might be nigher than their own, however. Because, despite the best efforts of the press, by the time CERN scientists flicked what is presumably a very big switch indeed, causing the LHC to shudder into life and drive two beams of protons in opposite directions around a 27-km-long circuit at close to the speed of light and at pretty much absolute zero, the remote possibility of the end of the world didn’t figure in our collective imaginations. We were too interested in whether Higgs bosons would turn out to exist or if we would have to re-think our working models of the material universe.

Climate science cannot compete with that sort of thing. Once you strip out the apocalyptic environmental prophesies, it has little to offer the non-specialist. Which is why, if global warmers want more of the action, they have to make even more of their scary scenarios. So, to justify why he thought the £4.4billion spent on the LHC would have been better spent on climate change, Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of books about climate change that have pictures of polar bears on the cover, has little choice but to resort to hyperbole and extravagation:

David King: This money was spent on curiosity-driven research, which may conceivably have some impacts on our well-being in the future. I suspect it won’t. I think we’ve probably driven this type of research far enough that it’s now more navel-searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind […]

Jeremy Paxman: So you say decide upon investment on the basis of what the likely outcome will be – search for a particular outcome like, for example, climate change solutions?

DK: Yes, that is what I’m saying, because I think we’re faced with the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had.

Sir David has rather a quaint view of how science works in practice. Fortunately, Professor Brian Cox (the LHC’s single most important discovery prior to the technical hitch) is seated next to him:

With respect, I think that argument just doesn’t hold water. Because you could have made it at any point in the past. And at every stage of this journey to understand how the Universe works, the spin-off technologies and the knowledge that we’ve gained have proved to be immensely valuable. Nobody is clever enough to predict where the next wonderful discovery is going to come from […] You have to put CERN in its context. This is part of a journey that we’ve been on for about a hundred years to understand the building blocks of matter and what are the forces that stick them together. This journey has given us, for example, the transistor, the silicon chip […] it’s given us the ability to use particle beams to […] potentially kill brain tumours.

But it turns out that Sir David – like most members of the establishment, scientific or otherwise – is less concerned with the way that scientific funds are distributed than he is with the idea that technology – and society – is out of control:

At which point are we going to say ‘this particle accelerator is as big as we want to build’?

To which Cox responds with the only answer possible:

It depends what you discover and where you go next.

More here:

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The third Big Science du jour is biology. Next year, we celebrate Darwin’s double anniversary (the bi-centenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species). This comes at a time when the scientific world – not to mention the social one – is still trying to get to grips with the implications of the more recent genomics revolution. Combined, natural selection and genomics drive home the extent to which humanity is both part of, and apart from, biology. Biology resonates so deeply because it provides a mechanism for how very complicated things like humans can come about from really simple things like molecules without divine intervention, while at the same time highlighting just how different we are from the apes with which we share so much of our biological recipe. A bonus is that, fingers crossed, genomics might also lead to cures for a bunch of horrible diseases.

But even biology is inclined historically to bouts of physics envy. Indeed, the phrase was coined with biologists in mind. Physicists don’t have to prove their science is hard enough by picking fights. Biologists, however, are inclined to puff up their scientific credentials by belittling the really soft sciences, like psychology. Similarly, physics is man enough to entertain the possibility that it’s got it all arse-about-face. Biology doesn’t talk in terms of ‘working models’. Although neither does it stoop to talk of ‘the consensus’ like climate science does. Biologists might no longer be eugenicists by default, but they would rather not dwell on the fact that they once were.

And biology still feels the need to make promises to justify its worth to society. Just like climate science, only the latter is more desperate. So while biology promises salvation – cures for cancer and degenerative disease – climatology brings us the end of the world, sweetened by the glimmer of a hope of mere survival. As Brian Cox’s Newsnight contribution testifies, physicists don’t promise anything. They don’t have to; they’ve already got our attention.

It is striking that genomics and climatology are both failing to live up to their promises. While global warmers have to resort to rhetorical, proverbial ticking time-bombs and coalmine canaries, the modern genetic sciences must keep assuring us that all those gene- and stem-cell-therapies that were supposed to have cured us by now are even closer to emerging from the end of the pipeline than they were the last time we asked. It’s getting embarrassing. Five years ago, biomedical scientists would have thought nothing of wheeling a multiple sclerosis sufferer on stage at a public lecture or press conference and vowing that we’d have a cure within five years. They can’t get away with that anymore. Neither audiences nor MS sufferers will let them. Not because we don’t recognise the value of the research, but because most of us have by now twigged that science is a messier, less predictable business than the likes of the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science would still like us to think it is. Likewise, we are becoming increasingly immune to the doomsday predictions of environmental scientists. The only difference is that they don’t seem any less inclined to keep making them.

Biology does have a smattering of its own end-of-the-world scenarios: genetic modification, pandemics, and ‘thrifty genes’ that condemn us to obesity in a world of plenty might all lead to our downfall. And biological and environmental prophesies come together in James Lovelock’s likening of the human population to a virus plaguing Gaia; global warming, he says, is just her way of ridding herself of the infection.

Biology and climate change have much in common that neither share with particle physics. Read high-profile scientists and science commentators like Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers or Chris Mooney and you could come away thinking that all good scientists are evolutionists, environmentalists and atheists. Biologists and environmentalists both tend to perceive themselves as somehow under siege from those perpetrating a War on Science. One has its creationists; the other has its climate ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’. And if there are two things that Myers, Mooney and Dawkins don’t like it’s creationists and climate sceptics/deniers.

But it’s a mistake to think that creationists have anything much in common with climate sceptics. Being sceptical of the climate consensus is in a completely different kettle of ball parks to rejecting the evidence for evolution. At Climate Resistance, for instance, we don’t have a problem with evolution. We are quite happy to accept that evolutionary biologists are doing good science. We’d go as far as to say that evolution by natural selection is about as close as is possible to get to a scientific fact. Neither do we have much of a problem with the science of climate or the environment. We won’t grumble if you call it a fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that civilisation is producing quite a lot of it. Our problem is with the way that climate science is deployed politically, and the meanings that are attached to it. A few climate change sceptics do push the line that it’s all just a scientific conspiracy. But as we have argued many times, climate scepticism is a broad church rather than a specific ideology, and most sceptics are more concerned that climate science is being used as a substitute for politics than that it is a willful corruption of the scientific process.

Despite Iain Stewart’s assertion in the final episode of his BBC series Climate Wars that anthropogenic global warming is ‘one of the most rigorously tested theories in the history of science’ (we’ve covered Part Two here), it isn’t. Biologists have been scrutinising and testing evolution intensively for 150 years, compared to the 30 years that anthropogenic global warming has been under the spotlight. Sure, there are gaps in knowledge – eg, the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction, or the origin of self-replicating macro-molecules – but just like gaps in the fossil record, two are created every time you fill one. The gaps in our understanding of global warming are fewer but wider. Moreover, the truth of evolution is not dependent on the future course of human history and politics like the truth of catastrophic climate change is.

Evolution is the fulcrum about which the entire discipline of biology pivots. It is often said that biology makes no sense without evolution. It is biology’s theory of everything. Climate change, on the other hand, is a tapestry of ideas stitched together from climatology, psychiatry, sociology, political science, economics, ethics, physics, biology and chemistry. And it’s used to rewrite history. It is a theory of everything first and a science second.

Not only is evolution more scrutinised and more robust than climate science but it is more detached. Evolutionists are not demanding that society be restructured around the very existence of natural selection. And neither are creationists. They don’t have to believe in evolution to be perfectly happy to use the fruits of evolutionary biology to their own advantage – in agricultural and medical strategies in the arms races with pests and diseases,for example. Creationists just happen not to like the idea that their ancestors are monkeys. Environmentalism, however (and let’s not forget that environmentalism is – as environmentalists keep telling us – based on ‘the science’), asks that we restructure our societies and global economics in the light of climatology. Environmentalists draw on ‘the science’ to prove that Capitalism is flawed. And it is flawed, of course, but not because the thermometers say so. IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri tells us that we should all stop eating meat. Dr Iain Stewart concludes his Climate Wars series with a call for action – ‘the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option’.

But one may make of evolution what one will. Even the Pope says so. And while the vast majority in the UK have no problem with evolution, few sign up to the environmental agenda despite encouragement from all directions. It’s not like anybody voted for it or anything. But then, those evolutionary psychologists are on hand to explain what’s wrong with us and how we might be persuaded otherwise.

Meanwhile, physicists are still looking for their unifying theory. They are more aware of how much we don’t know. Mark Vernon argues that biology is the heartland of militant atheism; physicists, he says, tend to be agnostic.

By way of example, Vernon pitches The God Delusion, by biologist Richard Dawkins, against What We Still Don’t Know, by Sir Martyn Rees (astronomer). Intriguingly, Rees – President of the Royal Society – is not so modest when writing on environmental matters. In Our Final Century? he calculates that humankind has a 50% chance of wiping itself out by 2100. That’s one hell of a model he must be using there to calculate the next century of human history.

Physicists are only too happy to talk about how they don’t know what they’re going to discover tomorrow – or when the LHC goes back on line. Evolutionary biologists are notoriously uncomfortable about speculating on the future course of evolution. So why should we have so much more faith in the predictive abilities of a science that claims to tell us how to run the world for the next hundred years?

All this is not to knock climate change as a field worthy of study. At all. It would be very handy to be able to predict the climate. And the weather. Like transistors, lasers and vaccines have been handy. Like a cure for MS or a fusion energy source would be. And like a Higgs boson or Origin of Species doesn’t need to be, but might well be.

But let’s not forget it is only science. If the hockey stick graph doesn’t capture our imagination like the Higgs boson does, or like they think it should do, it’s not our problem – it’s theirs.

We wish the LHC a speedy recovery. And give the last word to Brian Cox: ‘Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.’

Climate Change Delusion By Proxy

Since the first case of the psychiatric disorder ‘climate change delusion‘ was diagnosed in an Australian patient earlier this month, commentators have suggested that the symptoms expressed by Al Gore and the like point to the condition being a rather common one. Indeed, it seems that the medical profession itself is not immune. John Guillebaud, professor of family planning at University College London, confesses all to the Guardian:

I’m terrified about climate change

More accurately, perhaps, Prof Guillebaud’s case is better described as ‘climate change delusion by proxy’ because while the Australian patient was trying to save the planet by ceasing to drink, the voices in Guillebaud’s head tell him that the solution is for other people to stop reproducing.

Writing in the British Medical Journal with Pip Hayes, a GP based in Exeter (who hasn’t expressed publicly how completely terrified she is), the father of three and patron of the Optimum Population Trust calls on

schools and GPs to develop education programmes to explain how a rising population is environmentally unsustainable, and how families who have no more than two children will help ensure the population remains steady or even falls.

As they write in the BMJ:

doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars.

Guillebaud’s adamance that this does not amount to coercion is wholly unconvincing, especially when he claims that

It’s people’s right to have the size of family they choose, but surely that should be balanced against the rights of future generations.

Not only is it coercive; it’s also deeply patronising:

an opportunity is missed when a doctor is talking to a young couple, in saying, you know, ‘have you thought about the family size you might choose? Have you thought about having one child less?’

And, of course, misanthropic:

It’s a fact that each new UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emission than, say, a new birth in Ethiopia. Now, there are two ways of looking at that – three ways really. One is to say that we rich people in the UK must enormously reduce our consumption of resources. But also there’s the fact that, if each of us is doing 160 times more damage, then not having a UK birth is more beneficial to the planet than there not being an Ethiopian birth.

He doesn’t say what the third way of looking at it is. Perhaps it’s that it’s OK for Ethiopians to keep reproducing just so long as they remain poor and don’t consume much. Except that he isn’t even happy with that. He seems to prefer that they remain poor and stop reproducing, as is evident in his justification for why Ethiopians should be encouraged to have fewer children: it would reduce the high rates of maternal mortality. As would proper medical facilities, of course. But, well, have you seen the electricity bill of a modern hospital? We can’t let all and sundry have access to one of those.

What we say in our organisation, The Optimum Population Trust, is the greenest energy is the energy you don’t use. And one way of not using it is to cut down your consumption by using a smaller car, or preferably by not using a car at all and going everywhere by bicycle or train like I do. But also, a really green thing to do is to have one child less than you normally would have had, because every additional child born in the UK produces in its lifetime three-million-miles-worth of carbon dioxide as driven in a Toyota Prius.

Any positives that ‘every additional child’ brings to the world don’t figure in Guillebaud’s calculations. Never mind that every additional child is a potential solution to problems – environmental or otherwise. Never mind that every additional child brings happiness, interest and love into the lives of others.

When babies are viewed as analogous to patio-heaters and big cars, you can bet that there is more to Environmentalism than an urge to save the planet. It reveals a deep-seated dislike of humanity. Children are polluters, energy-wasters, or in Guillebaud’s words:

the environment is being trashed partly by the number of environment-trashers

Frank Furedi puts Guillebaud’s Mathusianism into historical perspective over at spiked. Climate change is, he argues, just the latest in a string of tenuous justifications for Malthusian politics:

In the past, Malthusians warned that overpopulation would lead to famine. When that argument disintegrated, they said overpopulation would undermine economic development. Later they claimed that overpopulation might assist the spread of communism, and more recently they have argued that it aids terrorism (lots of poor young men with no jobs apparently leads to apocalyptic violence).

Now they have latched on to environmentalism and the widespread concern about humanity’s impact on the planet. What we have today is a new form of joined-up scaremongering, where the traditional fear of human fertility is linking up with anxieties about what humans are doing to the Earth.

It’s interesting, then, that Chris West, director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, told the Guardian that population control won’t have an impact on climate change anyway:

“If we had a way to reduce the population … it would be one way to address climate change, but in the current circumstances, it’s not a very effective way,” he said […] “it’s not going to deliver emission reductions on anything like the timescale we need.”

We have said before that it’s really just a few Environmentalist cranks who talk about population control in positive terms, and that most of us are repelled by the idea. Even the editorial pages of the green-thinking Guardian are unsympathetic:

The problem that the BMJ authors and others highlight is real; the solution they give, however, is plain wrong […] Population control has a terrible reputation: India’s forced-sterilisation programme was among the blackest points in its recent history. Just as there is a reason why prophets come back into fashion, so there is normally a reason why history turned its back on them. In Malthus’ case, he was simply wrong.

But while few can bring themselves to agree with Guillebaud and Hayes’ misanthropic vision, Environmentalism remains dependent on the notion of population control. In fact, the Environmentalist case falls apart without it. Take Caroline Lucas’s claim that

this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet

Though she’s talking about economic growth, her argument extends unavoidably to population growth. And it’s equally flawed whichever one you apply it to. But given the green establishment’s reliance on the concept of sustainability, it’s strange perhaps that it keeps resoundingly schtum on matters of population. The only occasions that the ‘issue’ of over-population gets an airing is when some eco-warrior pitches into an internet forum with something along the lines of ‘when will we acknowledge the elephant in the room and face up to the fact that there’s just too many people?’, which is usually received with an embarrassed silence, or when one of the small cabal centred around the Optimum Population Trust manages to secure a few column inches. (Unless you count this.)

The Green Party, despite having supposedly discussed the matter at its spring conference this year, have no policy on population. All they have to say on the subject is embedded within a so-called ‘policy pointer‘:

a stable or slowly reducing population is also necessary to achieve a sustainable and equitable society

That’s not to say they don’t think there are too many people – they almost certainly do. Or that they are not not concerned that their lack of commitment on the subject undermines their political philosophy – they must be. It’s just that they know that coming out of the closet on over-population will make them even more unelectable than they already are.

Nothing humans have ever done has been sustainable; and nothing that is billed as ‘sustainable’ is sustainable in the sense that it can continue indefinitely. Likewise, nothing is renewable in the sense that Environmentalists mean ‘renewable’. Paving the Sahara with photo-voltaics would be neither renewable nor sustainable. It would be bound to affect local and even global climate. And yet it would be worth doing because of the vast amounts of energy it would provide. But Environmentalists only ever sell ‘renewables’ to us on the basis that it will allow us to keep the lights on given that we’re all going to have to batten down the hatches, scrimp and save, make do and mend. That is all Environmentalism has to offer us, as spelled out, as it happens, in the sub-title of Sir David King’s book, The Hot TopicHow to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On.

We suggest that greens are pro-‘renewables’ not because they are sustainable or renewable, but because they have not been expected to produce more energy than we have available to us at the moment. The test of that will be to watch and see as the green movement starts opposing large-scale solar projects such as this one.

Given that population control is so repulsive to so many, the only question we need to be discussing is this: How do we provide more energy and more resources for more people? And that’s a discussion that Environmentalists can take no part in. They’ll just have to settle for the voices in their heads for company.

Snowmen Families Hit by Meltdown Double Whammy

Continuing the English tradition of judges making absurd public statements… And following Professor Philip James‘s call for a “climate plan” to “tackle obesity”… And following Sir David King’s “climate change poses a bigger threat than terrorism“… Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Justice Coleridge:

“Without being in any way over-dramatic or alarmist, my prediction would be that the effects of family breakdown on the life of the nation, and ordinary people, in this country will, within the next 20 years, be as marked and as destructive as the effects of global warming. 

“We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps.”