Brain Cox is a great science communicator. That is to say, he makes very effective TV programmes, which do not condescend, and do much to encourage an interest in science. But there is surely science as process, and there’s ‘science’ as an institution. It’s not clear which one Cox – who gave this year’s Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture – was speaking for. His lecture, given the title, ‘Science: a challenge to TV Orthodoxy’ was disappointing given his previous arguments for scientific research, and didn’t challenge orthodoxy as much as it reproduced it, almost entirely uncritically.
To people who follow the climate debate, the interesting things would seem to be Brian’s treatment of Martin Durkin’s film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was ‘bollocks’, in Cox’s view; and Iain Stewart’s Climate Wars series, which was held up as a model of good science documentary making. (More on those points shortly.)
But what Brian’s lecture really demonstrates is very much the problem in the background to the climate debate, not merely the problem within it. As we’ve argued here, environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause of the problems experienced in today’s society. Some interesting contradictions in Brian’s thesis reveal the context of the climate debate.
Take, for instance, these two statements, one made at the opening and the other further into his presentation.
Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent government spending review, which speaks not only to its economic value, but also to its increasing public profile.
So since the continuing health of our science programming depends on the public and therefore government support, and the steady flow of excited young people who want to become scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right.
At the same time as Cox celebrates the apparent scientific renaissance, he seems to be concerned that television isn’t getting science right. This appears to be something of a contradiction. What kind of cultural renaissance misconceives the very substance that drives it?
To demonstrate the problem of broadcasters’ approach to science, Cox turns to the treatment of two scientific arguments. The first is the BBC’s handling of complaints about his (correct) claim that ‘astrology is a load of rubbish’ in his film, the Wonders of the Solar System. It had drawn the following complaint:
His careless assertion was unreserved, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? … I have certainly never seen him at an astrology conference or read anything written by him about astrology… This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.
When the BBC asked Cox for a response, he simply put his argument more forcefully. The BBC instead released a statement explaining that Cox’s views on astrology were his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the BBC’s views. The issue Cox takes here is with the supposition that broadcasters should be ‘neutral’ in their coverage of ‘controversies’.
Cox says that this is a trivial case, but that there are much more serious problems caused by the imperative of impartiality. The next case he explores concerns criticism of the the media’s coverage of the MMR-autism scare from Dr. Ben Goldacre. Goldacre says:
Now debate’s good. But this was conspiracy theory and ignorance. The pharmaceutical industry have certainly been guilty of cover-ups. But MMR just isn’t one of them. And it’s not as if scientists have ignored the question. Researchers in Denmark looked at half a million children. 400,000 had MMR. 100,000 didn’t. And yet the rates of autism was the same in both groups. You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story. I can’t blame parents for being terrified. Evidence-based medicine — the science of how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us — is fascinating. It’s easy to understand. And I think the public deserve the chance to hear about these ideas.
Just as the BBC had sought to distance itself from Cox’s statements about astrology, the ITN news programme featuring Goldacre’s authored piece also emphasised that the opinions reflected belonged to the author, not the broadcaster.
These two cases indeed seem to point to a problem, though it’s worth asking how representative they are. And Cox’s reflection on them is not deep. Astrology is, as Cox claims, a mystical view of the universe. But its adherents no longer express their ideas in supernatural terms. The complainant’s criticism of Cox is expressed in scientific terms. It accused him of bad science. However much nonsense it is, the complainant’s reformulation of a supernatural idea in scientific terms speaks volumes about science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’.
And to the MMR scare, we might want to say that, although the media’s appetite for controversy certainly raised the profile of the issue, scientists were at the heart of the story. Surrounding the coverage of Andrew Wakefield — the now disgraced researcher — who gave the story seemingly scientific credibility, were the angry parents of autistic children. A strange mix of high emotions and cold scientific language dominated the coverage, obscuring the substance of the matter. Cox and Goldacre both promise that science had the answer. But what does this promise say to the suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry — and by extension, medicine — that Goldacre seems to share? What can it do about the media’s need for ‘scare stories’? It seems, after all, less that science is enjoying a renaissance, but that ‘science’ is simultaneously the expression of a weakening of public discourse and trust, and is given as its remedy. To what extent is the use or abuse of science in the MMR scare or astrology really about science?
Moreover, climate sceptics would recognise Goldacre’s criticism of the media’s use of ‘scare stories’. And this makes Cox’s use of the Great Global Warming Swindle and BBC’s Climate Wars series all the more odd. If the media are drawn to scare stories such as MMR, is it not fair to ask if this phenomenon extends to the media’s coverage of the climate?
To illustrate the expression of bad documentary film-making, Cox points to the Swindle film, to make the argument that a viewer might not have the substance behind the eyes necessary to understand that Durkin’s film was a ‘polemic’. He acknowledges that the film was advertised and introduced as a polemic, but that this is not enough. He seems to want the words ‘POLEMIC’ in flashing red letters, throughout the broadcast.
Durkin’s film was polemic, of course. But Cox doesn’t ever explain what the fault of the film’s polemic was. Was it the solar / cosmic ray theory of cloud-formation? Or was it the argument that climate change is the product of this natural variation? Cox’s objection to TGGWS appears to be that it broke with what he calls the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, misleading the audience who may not be sufficiently well informed to understand that the film was a polemic. Broadcasters and film makers should stick to the peer-reviewed scientific consensus.
But if Cox doesn’t identify precisely what the object of the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ actually is, how can he criticise a ‘polemic’ which seems to contradict it? This blog has, over the past 4 years attracted criticism for the same thing, yet we’ve rarely ever ventured into matters of science. Indeed, our principal argument is that the ‘consensus’ seems to stand for whatever those who wield it claim it stands for. More to the point, we can see as much confusion about what the consensus is from climate scientists, world leaders, and activists as we can see from any group of sceptics. Yet it is only ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’ who are taken to task for taking liberties with the consensus.
There is a further problem here, in that the climate debate divides on another axis, between the argument about whether or not ‘anthropogenic climate change is happening’, and what its consequences are. Within each side of this axis there are competing and contradicting claims, and questions of degree, rather than binary, true-or-false calculations. If, just over a year ago, had you proposed a film to Brian Cox, which took issue with the claims that climate change would massively reduce crop yields in Africa, or that the hundreds of millions of people living beneath the Himalayas face chronic water shortages as a result of glacial recession, you would, in his view, be a ‘maverick’. You would be outside the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. Yet those are the things that this and other blogs have discovered to be false. The implication of Cox’s argument is that such claims should be ignored by broadcasters.
So the notion of a ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ serves to polarise the political and scientific debates. And the unfortunate implication for Cox is that, as long as what you say apparently ‘fits’ the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, you can whittle out any nonsense you wish without incurring the wrath of the ‘scientists’. (And it should be asked again at this point, exactly how representative TGGWS was — as we’ve pointed out before, this bogeyman sticks out of many tens of thousands of hours of programming. It’s hardly typical of contemporary programming, and sits amongst many many hours of green trash.) You can, for instance, claim that a billion people will starve or face drought. You can claim that 150,000 people a year die of climate change. You can then, for no good reason double the estimate to say that 300,000 die of climate change. You can claim that there are just ‘50 days to save the planet’, or you can claim that ‘Obama has just 4 years to save the planet’, or you can claim that there are only ‘100 months to save the planet’.
In other words, you can use the ambiguous ‘peer reviewed scientific consensus’ to construct dramatic stories about catastrophe, and you can use this urgency to develop political arguments with the blessing of ‘science’. And that is precisely what Iain Stewart did for in his series, Climate Wars, which Cox holds up as an example of ‘drawing a clear distinction in the viewers mind, between the peer-reviewed science and his opinion’. In the clip Cox showed, Stewart said:
It would have been lovely to have made a programme about how science had got it all wrong. That actually we’ve got nothing to worry about. But unfortunately it’s the opposite. Most of the climate scientists I talked to are actually genuinely scared by the future. They’re worried that it’s in the nature of the climate to change far faster than we once thought possible. And my feeling is, if they’re scared, so should we be. Because whatever the uncertainties surrounding climate prediction, the fundamental science is pretty clear. We may not know exactly what global warming will bring, but we sure as hell know it’s happening. There’s just no hiding place from that simple fact. And of course what it means for us an our families, well, that’s a different matter. But if I’ve learned one thing in this series, it’s that the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option.
But as we showed here (and here), Stewart’s films took massive liberties with the facts of the climate debate, and even greater liberties with his treatment of the arguments of the ‘sceptics’. For instance, he presented the last 20+ years of debate as one between ‘scientists’ representing an unchanging ‘scientific consensus’ and the usual deniers. This re-wrote history, not only from the perspective of just one side, but also from the present. This ahistoric perspective was owed to the fact that the film is nothing more than a verbatim replication of Naomi Oreskes’s ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis. Indeed, Oreskes gets a credit on the film. But it’s nothing more than a conspiracy theory. As we pointed out:
To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between ‘denialist’ arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.
Brian Cox cannot have looked too deeply at the Climate Wars series, because Stewart routinely confuses ‘science’ with opinion. It was, in the words Cox might use, ‘factually total bollocks’, both in its treatment of the scientific arguments, and matters of history and politics. And it’s Cox’s surprisingly fragile understanding of the climate debate and his failure to subject claims about the ‘scientific consensus’ to criticism which causes him to reproduce the same old orthodoxy:
As Iain Stewart says, the consensus is clear. The real controversy is political, and centers on the question ‘what is to be done’. Should we increase tax on oil? Should we not build a third runway at Heathrow? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Or wind turbines? Should we risk damaging our economy in the short term by reducing CO2 emissions quickly? Or should we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, and seek a more market-oriented solution to climate change? These are complex questions, the answers to which often divide down political lines. But I think Iain Stewart navigates these treacherous waters well, because he remains true to the science, and true to television.
Here, Cox is simply naive. For him, the political debate emerges after the ‘science’, but as this blog argues, there’s plenty of politics prior to the science.
In one sense, the politics is prior in determining what the consequences of climate change are likely to be. In order to understand the material consequences, environmentalists presuppose a fragile nature in ‘balance’. And to understand the human, social consequences of climate change, environmentalists need to presuppose that social phenomena are ‘natural’, such that nothing could ever be done, for instance, to abolish poverty. These points are discussed at length elsewhere on this blog. But there is another sense in which the politics is prior that could do with some exploration here.
As discussed above, science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’ is coincident with moral disorientation at the newsdesk, and a collapse of trust between the public and medicine. Cox identifies that there’s a problem with TV makers responding to the controversies that its audience wants answers to, but appears to say nothing of what this phenomenon arose from. Just as newsdesks can only see the world in terms of scare stories and controversies, so too do today’s political arguments ground themselves on matters of catastrophe.
Cox does this himself:
This means that the most objective and impartial presentation of the so-called contentious story, such as MMR, climate change, astrology, or even the so-called evolution debate should be given significantly more weight to the scientifically peer-reviewed position. Because this will leave the audience with the more truthful view of the current thinking. Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not to be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.
Cox makes an argument for science, not on the basis of its positive potential for us, but on the same old basis: that we face crises. This is not an argument for science. It’s an appeal for authority.
… the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.
Cox is kidding himself. The peer-review process is not, by definition ‘impartial’. For instance, the peer-review process can’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the peer-reviewers are victims of the thinking that Cox is victim to. Does the peer-review process reject claims about the consequences of climate change which don’t give consideration to the degree to which social factors — i.e. poverty — determine the human outcome far more than weather? Or are scientists, just as journalists and politicians are, vulnerable to the idea that catastrophes are merely material events, devoid of any social or historical context? It strikes me that you can do perfectly good science on a flimsy social premise that ‘poverty is natural’, to conclude that climate change will make it worse. But why should this premise have more weight in the debate about climate change than the argument that we could do more by abolishing poverty? Moreover, the view of the climate debate that Cox seems to have is that it simply divides on the question about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’. And the fundamental problem here is that the ensuing arguments confuse the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 and the sensitivity of human society to climate.
My argument on this blog is that this confusion is the presupposition of much climate science that constitutes the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. This is at best a kind of soft-environmentalism, and it’s passed off as the conclusion of climate science. But really, it’s the premise of political environmentalism. The conclusion and premise of much climate research is identical, and never interrogated. This is the major fault not only of environmentalism, but also of science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’.
Scientists, journalists and politicians are all vulnerable to the view that debates about science consist merely of arming the argument about ‘What is to be Done’ with the imperative: ‘Something Must be Done about…’. That is the extent of science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’. In the process, a great number of presuppositions are smuggled in, consciously or not.
To this, Cox might respond (indeed he says it),
Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.
‘Science’ as a process may well have no agenda to speak of. But the same cannot be said of science as an institution. Science does not do science; people do science. And as much as the aim may be to produce a value-free investigation of the material world, we see in the climate debate that the issue is muddied. Climate science is no longer merely engaged in an attempt to understand material processes, but becomes the substance of an understanding of how humans relate, and the basis on which far-reaching political institutions are being established. The claim that 150,000 people die each year from climate change, for instance, to form the basis of a projection and a call for action, must presuppose that there is nothing that can be done to abolish poverty. In other words, climate science begins to explain the existence of poverty in the world: it’s the result of a degraded environment. The more general expression of this problem is the ‘naturalisation’ of social problems and phenomena.
The problem becomes clearer in a statement Cox makes near the start of his presentation:
I think the best way to illustrate these occasional incompatibilities is to first define what science is. Now this is not easy in a historical context, because to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and journalists. But I’m going to ignore all this, because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the Nobel-prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman. He said the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornothology is to birds. To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. See everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it.
‘Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.’ Of course it is, with two important caveats. First, that material science is the framework for understanding the material world. Second, that this first caveat must imply some method which makes it possible to identify whether science is attempting to study something material, or something that is better understood or studied through social science.
Cox is nearly onto something when he says that postmodern philosophy confounds the definition of ‘science’. But he perhaps forgets what it also did to the study of the human realm. If we take ‘postmodernism’ to mean some radical form of relativism, which reduces ‘science’ to nothing more than ‘just another belief system’, this also reduces the social sciences and humanities to meaningless narratives. The effect of postmodernism on the understanding of the human world was far more devastating. The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’ This really does turn ‘science’ into ‘just another narrative’, because it now starts to become an encompassing framework, from which claims are made about the non-material world. It starts to explain poverty as a natural phenomenon. It starts to explain the right and the wrong in material terms of ‘true and false’. It starts to connect humans through material phenomena. ‘Climate change’ begins to explain social phenomena; it measures the ‘ethics’ of our behaviour; it determines what form of social organisation is best, and how people should relate…
That is the reality of ‘science’s cultural and political renaissance’. Science becomes far more than a value free investigation of the material world, and starts, in Cox’s own words,
…to draw profound conclusions about our responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and ultimately the cosmos itself.
This is no longer ‘objectivity’. And when it turns out that the institutions of science don’t engender the respect and authority that Cox believes they deserve, he has only one answer: more scientism. The reality is that people are suspicious of the MMR jab and people believe in astrology, not because they are mislead, but because it takes more than sheer wonder at the universe to create trust in political, social, and scientific institutions.