The Grief Lectures 2010 – Part One

by | Jun 17, 2010

While we were busy, the Royal Society’s diktats on climate change got the world’s oldest scientific academy into the news, again. Back when we started this blog in 2007, we found the language used by those in and around the RS to be perhaps the most peculiar expression of the confusion of science and politics in the climate debate. The RS’s erstwhile president, Robert May had declared that the society’s motto was best translated as ‘respect the facts’ – a revision of ‘on the word of no one’ that looked like a desperate inversion of its ethic. May wasn’t beyond making up his own facts, as we revealed after he accused Great Global Warming Swindle director, Martin Durkin of having produced a three-part series of films denying the link between HIV and AIDS. Roger Harrabin has recently decided to remember that May had once told him that “I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over”. (Harrabin has only now decided to recall the incident, but it would surely have been more interesting to publicly challenge his arrogance while he was president, back then.) And it wasn’t just May using the authority that science itself had bestowed on him. The RS’s then communications director, Bob Ward busied himself by speaking on behalf of science, writing open letters to anyone seemingly daring to challenge any aspect of climate change politics, and any editor of a publication that dared to host unorthodox opinion. The Royal Society is now feeling the effect of certain of its members’ aggression and contempt, and challenges to its authority now come from within.

The Society’s current president is a far more charming character than his angry predecessor. Yet Lord Martin Rees of Ludlow, as keen as he is to share with us the wonders of scientific discovery, is preoccupied with the doom it seemingly forecasts. And it is this doom, doom doooooooom, which is the unstated theme of his thesis at this year’s Reith Lectures – an annual series of radio lectures – which Rees is giving this year. Rees’s talks have been given the title ‘scientific horizons’, and the first is called ‘the scientific citizen’. Although Rees has a more affable personality than Robert May, his perspective is no less political.

Citizenship is an inherently political concept, yet Rees, with scientific authority, reinvents it. Let’s start at the end, where Rees explains what a ‘scientific citizen’ actually is.

There’s a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what it’s prudent or ethical actually to do – there are doors that science could open but which are best left closed. Everyone should engage with these choices but their efforts must be leveraged by ‘scientific citizens’ – scientists from all fields of expertise – engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media, and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science.

On Rees’s view, the scientific citizen is a modest fellow.

Winston Churchill once said that scientists should be “on tap, not on top.” And it is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But the role of scientific advice is not just to provide facts to support policies. Experts should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties of science. But there’s one thing they mustn’t forget. Whether the context be nuclear power, drug classification, or health risks, political decisions are seldom purely scientific. They involve ethics, economics and social policies as well. And in domains beyond their special expertise, scientists speak just as citizens.

Science creates possibilities. Some of those possibilities are good and some are bad. Not good or bad in straightforward ways, but in ways which require expertise to fully understand, and to explain.  Who could possibly disagree?

Of course, it would be a great thing if the entire public were scientifically literate, and alongside the media, had realistic expectations and an understanding of science. And it would be a great thing if ‘citizen scientists’ spontaneously engaged in public debate about the merits and demerits of novel ideas.

But if wishes were horses, poor men would ride. It turns out that many people simply aren’t interested in science, nor even the politics that science is intended to inform. Many scientists aren’t all that interested in the public. Expectations and understanding of science vary greatly.  And, in fact, scientific experts – even as experts – are not so detached from the subjective, human world, after all, and even they often find it hard to talk about and within the limits of their knowledge. Never mind that the public and media’s expectations of science are unrealistic.

Rees only need look as far back as his predecessor and his communications officer to see for himself why such a goal, as wonderful as it is, is not possible in the present. And he only needs to look to himself to see why it has limited of chances in the near future. Rees is discussing a social order, and as much as it speaks about engagement in decision-making processes, the basis for engagement is not really progress, but the avoidance of disaster, and as such, there is no real choice on offer.

For instance, this is how Rees discusses the role of the citizen-scientist in relation to climate policy.

Suppose you seek medical guidance. Googling any ailment reveals a bewildering range of purported remedies. But if your own health were at stake, you wouldn’t attach equal weight to everything in the blogosphere: you’d entrust your diagnosis to someone with manifest medical credentials. Likewise, we get a clearer ‘steer’ on climate by attaching more weight to those with a serious record in the subject.

We’ve encountered this doctor analogy before. A few years ago, atmospheric scientist, Andrew Dessler had asked us to imagine who we’d trust the care of a sick child to – a doctor or a quack? The IPCC represented the ‘doctor’ in his tale, against the quacks on the blogosphere. Dessler had responded to the list compiled by Sen. James Inhofe, of experts who had allegedly expressed doubt of some kind about global warming, or the politics it had created.

To understand why Inhofe’s claims are fundamentally bogus, consider the following scenario: imagine a child is diagnosed with cancer. Who are his parents going to take him to in order to determine the best course of treatment? […] Expertise matters. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. The list of skeptics on the EPW blog contains few bona fide climate specialists. […] That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.

It turned out, of course, that the IPCC reports were authored by individuals with the expertise in areas that Dessler had slighted – ‘scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc’. But Dessler’s analogy also failed because the earth’s systems cannot be compared to an organism in this way. There is no adequate equivalent of ‘sick’ in climate science, nor even health, let alone ‘cure’, ‘remedy’, or ‘vaccine’. Climate change, although it is often understood or used in very simple, binary terms, ultimately refers to a constellation of phenomena, because we humans interact with the climate and environment in many many different ways. Back to Rees’s claim, there is no expert that we could take our “sick planet” to. Who has the equivalent of ‘manifest medical credentials’ in the climate debate? Who has ‘cured’ a ‘sick’ planet?

One major problem we have pointed out with various claims about the climate, is that there is a tendency to overstate the extent to which society is dependent on nature. For instance, the maxim, ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, asks us to mend our relationship with the natural world, as though it would somehow transform the lives of the world’s least advantaged people. Development and relief NGOs such as Oxfam have reinvented terminology to express the idea, and now speak of ‘climate justice’ and ‘climate poverty’.  It is as if we here in the western, industrialised, advanced capitalist economies enjoy justice and life free from poverty because it is given by the climate: as though justice itself fell to earth with the rain, or providence descended from the cosmos along sunbeams and rainbows. What this naturalised view of the human world forgets is that justice is given by our own creations – social institutions – just as are the means to escape poverty.

Why wouldn’t a ‘scientific citizen’ be vulnerable to this political idea, in which some kind of secular, pseudo-scientific equivalent of divine providence underpins a view of the world in which people relate ‘justly’ through the ‘biosphere’, rather than through social institutions? Why should a scientist – even a climate scientist – have a better grasp of justice than his lay neighbour? Why would a ‘scientific citizen’ have a better understanding of the claim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, such that his ‘leverage’ ought to be greater than any other citizen who believes that this better creates an imperative to address poverty, than climate change? ‘Science’ gives the scientific citizen greater leverage, it seems, according to Rees, because only science can give a measure of what kind of what horrific tragedy awaits us. Doom is key in this view. Without it, there is no order.

These catastrophes are varied, in Rees’s view, but increasing in their number and likelihood as science itself creates such possibilities. Either ‘bio-error or bio-terror’ or some other such thing will lead us to some point over the next century when the entire human race will face some kind of disaster that threatens its survival, says Rees. Climate change is one such thing, but a great number of other possibilities await. And it is in these possibilities that gives the scientific citizen his political authority, in Rees’s view. But Rees’s view is incomplete, as this exchange in the questions following his lecture reveals.

SPIEGELHALTER:  You appear to speak approvingly, for example, of the government response to swine flu; but I think many people, the popular opinion would be that that might have been an over-reaction. I mean the problem with low probability high consequence events is that they hardly ever happen, and we’re deeply uncertain about what the probabilities and the consequences might be. You would like to take a more rational, perhaps insurance based approach, but how are you actually going to do that in the face of these really deep uncertainties without the public continually accusing the scientists of crying wolf about things that just don’t happen?

MARTIN REES: Yes. Well of course many of the things we should worry about have a less than 50 percent probability, and you could take the view we don’t take any precautions if the chance is less than 50 percent. But that’s not the attitude we take when getting fire insurance for our house; and many people are aware that you do insure against things which have a much less than 50 percent chance of probability, and therefore in those contexts people accept that they are likely to waste their money because what they’re insuring against won’t happen. And it seems to me that that was entirely analogous to what was done in stocking up the vaccine. The chance might have been less than 50 percent, but if you multiply the probability by the consequences it was not necessarily foolish. I don’t have enough expert knowledge in that particular case, but there are surely many cases when there’s much less than 50 percent chance of something happening but, nonetheless, it is worth a major investment to guard against it.

What Rees doesn’t seem to have considered is that the desire for the authority that crises generate could well exist prior to the desire to protect the world from pandemics. Political authority that legitimises itself on the avoidance of catastrophe doesn’t have to answer to those it is seemingly intends to protect. Seen from this perspective, isn’t it at least possible that political players, sensing that they are losing their moral authority, and hence their democratic legitimacy, attempt to locate their authority in crises? Moreover, the ordinary citizen isn’t able to comprehend the danger he or she is vulnerable to in Rees’s account. What role does the lay-citizen really have, then, in participating in the process of making decisions about their own future, when the future is such a perilous place? As the peril increases, so too does the lay-citizen defer to the scientific citizen’s authority, necessarily. This all seems like ‘common sense’ in a war zone, and, as we have pointed out before, Greens are keen to compare the current situation to events in history, such as WWII. In such circumstances, we are expected to get behind authority, rather than challenge it, and to lower our expectations in order to overcome whatever challenge lies in front of us.

In his own words, ‘Today’s scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature’s laws by observation and experiment. But they should also engage broadly with society and with public affairs.’ The founders of the Royal Society had determined to ‘accept nothing on authority’, but we see in Rees’s words this principle qualified: the ‘practical agenda of their era’ moved scientists to look outwards, through telescopes and microscopes. Now such frontiers are demolished, ‘Our Earth no longer offers an open frontier’, but we’re as badly off as we were before; life here on earth ‘seems constricted and crowded’ and perilously hanging in the balance. Rees turns the telescope and microscope about. Today’s ‘practical agenda’ is about restoring the authority that Rees’s predecessors took from those it challenged. The churches and anciens régimes that were swept away by the age of reason posited that a natural order existed, which, if upset, would lead to catastrophe. Evil would rampage through all of creation. Mankind would stand no chance of salvation. How much has changed?

1 Comment

  1. Wasp-Honey

    “The chance might have been less than 50 percent, but if you multiply the probability by the consequences it was not necessarily foolish. I don’t have enough expert knowledge in that particular case, but there are surely many cases when there’s much less than 50 percent chance of something happening but, nonetheless, it is worth a major investment to guard against it.”

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. – C. S. Lewis


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