On the Word of No One… Except Us

by | Apr 18, 2007

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.



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