Green-Eyed Monsters

by | Sep 27, 2008

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:

[youtube -6fPuhSa6bc]

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.’


  1. JTankers

    Wonderful article. Professor Cox provides and interesting example of the culture at CERN.[1][2][3]

    A recent speech attended by at least one CERN safety report author estimated a 1 in 1000 chance that CERN’s safety arguments are fundamentally wrong.[4] A growing list of scientists risk having their credibility attacked by CERN by stating their concerns that the safety margin may be an illusion.[5][6][7][8]

    [1] Culture of Superiority? (June 2008)

    [2] CERN?s Dr. Ellis tells only half of the story – (2008)

    [3] CERN wins battle at Wikipedia, LHC history scrubbed, TWO MOSQUITOES

    [4] A 1-in-1,000 Chance of Götterdämmerung, Will European physicists destroy the world? Ronald Bailey | September 2, 2008

    [5] Abraham-Solution to Schwarzschild Metric Implies That CERN Miniblack Holes Pose a Planetary Risk, Prof. Dr. Otto Rossler (2008)

    [6] On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders – Rainer Plaga Rebuttal (2008)

    [7] US Federal Lawsuit Filings – Walter L. Wagner (2008)

    [8] Particle Accelerators, CERN, and Doomsday. Prof Shahn Majid (2008)

  2. MrWorry

    CERN. What use is it? What has it ever achieved? Other than the Internet of course. Now they have the temerity to propose this sort of research:- Don’t they realize that it’s the job of government approved, IPCC vetted, real climatologists to tell us which way the wind blows..

  3. Stefan

    I’m glad the former Chief Scientific Advisor gets his views aired.

    He shows to the public that scientists aren’t simply geeks looking for cold facts. Instead, they often bring their own moral judgements along and their feeling for how they want the world to change. His final argument is that too many people are attracted to projects like the LHC, whist they should, you know, *really* be going into climate change research. Really? Says who?

    He illustrates that feeling common amongst environmentalists that humanity has gone too far with dirty technology and that we need to go back to some sort of (mythical) balance.

    The fact that environmentalists think this whilst using computers, flying in planes, wearing cotton clothes and using soap and clean water, seems to suggest that they are not as holistic in their thinking as they claim to be.

  4. JMW

    “Don’t they realize that it’s the job of government approved, IPCC vetted, real climatologists to tell us which way the wind blows..”

    Maybe if CERN’s and LHC’s objectives were to advance our understanding of climate change [read: remind people that it’s All Our Fault that the climate is so fucked-up], they’d be more supportive of it?

    “He illustrates that feeling common amongst environmentalists that humanity has gone too far with dirty technology and that we need to go back to some sort of (mythical) balance.”

    The mythical balance the proponents make a lot of noise over, but don’t seem too enthusiastic about actually adopting into their lives–that’s for the poor people in places like Africa.

    “The fact that environmentalists think this whilst using computers, flying in planes, wearing cotton clothes and using soap and clean water, seems to suggest that they are not as holistic in their thinking as they claim to be.”

    But but but! It’s all organic and fair trade and and and! That counts for something, right?

  5. Alex Cull

    I’m reminded of the “Of what use is a newborn baby?” response given by either Michael Faraday or Ben Franklin, when asked about the usefulness of (respectively) electricity or hot air balloons. I think Brian Cox is right – curiosity-driven science and the desire to unlock the universe’s secrets, is what has shaped the modern world and also what has motivated the best scientific minds.

    I’m imagining what could have happened if the Royal Society had diverted all of its efforts and resources in the late 1600s and early 1700s into phlogiston sequestration, on the basis that the world faced a fiery doom caused by runaway combustion. Lord May’s 18th century counterpart might have exclaimed: “Magnetism? Electricity? Gravity? What frivolities are these, when the end of the world is nigh?”

  6. Eric Anderson

    Lurker here. Thanks for a great site and for all the effort to highlight issues with AGW. Just one small thing that caught my eye:

    “Biology doesn’t talk in terms of ‘working models’. Although neither does it stoop to talk of ‘the consensus’ like climate science does.”

    Regarding that last sentence, presumably you are referring to working, operational biology, rather than theoretical evolutionary biology? If so, I agree. However, if you are referring to the latter, you need to get out a bit more, as the use of authoritative “consensus” arguments is pervasive in the field . . .

  7. Editors

    Hi Eric,
    If you are suggesting that evolutionary biology is a politicised science, then, yes, we agree. Like climate science, evolutionary biology frequently goes beyond its remit – to bolster deterministic visions of human nature and society, for example. Indeed, we mention evolutionary psychology in the article. It’s just not politicised to the extent that climate science is politicised. It’s hard to spot an evolutionary equivalent of the IPCC ‘consensus’, for example. And evolutionary biologists don’t have the ear of policy-makers like climate scientists do. Even those of a theoretical ilk are quite open about the fact that many areas are heavily contested. In fact, we’re not sure why you distinguish between theoretical and experimental biology. Geneticists are not averse to describing DNA as the seat of humanity/individuality for political ends. Like both experimental and theoretical climate science are open to the same treatment for political ends. Perhaps we’re missing something though – please provide some specific examples. And you’re probably right that we should get out more.

  8. Stefano Mori

    “Like climate science, evolutionary biology frequently goes beyond its remit – to bolster deterministic visions of human nature and society, for example.”

    In developmental psychology (Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck) these visions of the world, are found to be a series of worldviews that emerge sequentially, in individuals and more broadly in culture–so there is always a large group of people who can agree with you in how you see the world.

    But people tend not to think of themselves as having a worldview that automagically paints the picture of the world that they form. A person who has an atheist worldview, looks at the data from science, and believes that the science data directly leads to only one rational conclusion: atheism!

    Worldviews are self-reinforcing… up until they become too painful that a break with the old happens, and a new worldview might emerge (but this takes decades).

    But the point is, people, including scientists, say that “the science” proves XYZ, but often it only proves X and the YZ is just the sub-culture’s worldview tacked onto the end.

    This is how environmentalists can claim that they come “only with peer reviewed science”, but they ignore that science when it’s about genetic modification being safe. This is how environmentalists can say there is a problem with coal, but if a clean technology is invented for coal, they simply insist that it is nonetheless “evil”–they aren’t attacking coal so much as trying to get everyone else to adopt their worldview. The trouble with worldviews–and if the authors mentioned above are to be believed, we all operate with a worldview–is that most worldviews believe that the world would be a better place is everyone adopted the same worldview–our view is the right view.

    Maybe this is OT but I find it more interesting than the usual accusation that environmentalists are “religious”. If we want to understand the IPCC and the UN, then we need to take on board what their overall worldview is, and how that is self-reinforcing their policies and aims. And that is not so much about politics, it is more about what is driving people and organisations towards certain political stances and strategies.

  9. Rich

    re #9

    From Mary Midgley’s “Science As Salvation”:
    “The attempt to dedramatize nature was meant to form part of this great scheme. It was intended to bypass weighted language and biased points of view, so as to reveal the facts directly. But there are, unfortunately, far more ways in which points of view can be biased than one might hope, and also many good reasons for using various kinds of language. As a distant, guiding ideal, the removal of bias is thoroughly proper. But the notion that anybody could actually achieve it has turned out no more realistic than the attempt to see the world fairly by standing nowhere.
    The history of thought is littered with supposedly universal and final schemes which have had something good in them, but have failed lamentably in what they claimed. It has become clear that we can indeed aim to correct partiality by balancing one bias against another, but can never assume that we have finally succeeded in becoming universal. Our knowledge does not consist of pure bits of information, warranted final, but of world-pictures which balance each other and constantly need modification. That is why the disinfecting project has fallen into the rather dangerous difficulties that I have been describing.”

    We do, indeed, all operate with a world-view and it’s partial, biassed and riddled with error – for every one of us.

    Read the whole chapter:


  10. JMW

    “But the point is, people, including scientists, say that “the science” proves XYZ, but often it only proves X and the YZ is just the sub-culture’s worldview tacked onto the end.”

    Like I said in another post, for some people science is not about advancing our understanding of the material world, but legitimising their particular “ism”. Whether it’s liberalism [“If we prove that global warming is real and we’re responsible, it’ll prove that liberalism is correct and the only acceptable world view to have.”] or conservatism [“If we prove that global warming is a farce, especially human-induced global warming, then it’ll prove that conservatism is correct and the only world view one should have.”] or any other “ism”, science’s only purpose is to prove that “my side is correct, not yours”.

    Knowledge is not the goal for them; winning is.

    Small wonder why neither side wants to give in–it means that the other guy will win.



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