Mark Lynas Doesn't Get It

by | Apr 25, 2011

Barry Woods points us to Mark Lynas’s latest comment on the gap opening up between himself and anti-nuclear environmentalists.

Yesterday I was an environmentalist. Today, according to tweets from prominent greens, and an op-ed response piece in the Guardian, I’m a “Chernobyl death denier”. My crime has been to stick to the peer-reviewed consensus scientific reports on the health impacts of the Chernobyl disaster, rather than – as is apparently necessary to remain politically correct as a ‘green’ – cleaving instead to self-published reports from pseudo scientists who have spent a lifetime hyping the purported dangers of radiation.

As said in the previous post here, the bond formed between environmentalists, and of course between environmentalists and the establishment, is insubstantial. They were held together by the utility created by their scare stories, given scientific authority, not by the cohesive substance that might bring people of a similar political philosophy or culture together: shared values, vision, or goals.

In 2008, the Royal Society gave Lynas an award for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. At the time, we wrote,

It seems that, rather than basing knowledge about the material universe on experimental evidence, the Royal Society and its senior members instead seek authority in science fiction; the extrapolation of superficially plausible science, forward into the future, where a drama plays out. … Lynas the one-time circus-activist stuntman, has his childish perspective on the world given respectability by the establishment’s accolades, and has expensive films made about his dark fantasy.

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

Lynas, Like Monbiot now shouts “DENIERS” at the environmental movement, who call him a denier…

I have discovered over the past few weeks that the anti-nuclear end of the environmental movement has no regard for proper scientific process when it comes to the issue which defines it. Perhaps this is no surprise, because as George Monbiot and others have shown, the methods used by campaigners on nuclear bear all the hallmarks of the methods used by anti-science climate change ‘deniers’.

Lynas and Monbiot have forgotten their own environmental journeys. They have forgotten where they came from. They find themselves in a snug relationship with respectable, institutional science, and imagine that it was always so. They cannot remember their lives as self-styled anti-establishment radicals.

According to the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit, “the claimed effect has no biological plausibility”. So why were Green Audit’s conclusions accepted so uncritically by the media and the public, if not by scientists? Because, “a high degree of mistrust in conventional agencies can make elaborate conspiracies seem plausible”.

So this is what Green Audit and other anti-nuclear campaign groups thrive on: distrust of both the nuclear industry and official health protection and regulatory agencies, allowing them to invoke shadowy conspiracies by men in white lab coats who presumably enjoy foisting dangerous radioactive materials on an unwilling public, all no doubt controlled by a sinister mastermind bearing a striking resemblance to Mr Burns off the Simpsons, the evil boss of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Lynas nearly has a point here — the issue of trust is key. But he has forgotten that he himself stood against the science… Just last year, in What the Green Movement Got Wrong, Lynas admitted that his objection to GM, and his participation in anti GM direct action ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing. It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’.

What Lynas should do is attempt to understand why his preoccupation with some emotional idea about ‘the relation between humans and other living things’ precluded trust in the scientific institutions that claimed it was safe. Instead, he uses the authority of institutional science to bash his erstwhile comrades, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, barely a decade ago, he would have been just as indifferent to such an argument about what ‘science’ says, just as Monbiot was.

The similarities with climate science ‘deniers’ is overwhelming. Take the selective use of data. Climate sceptics make much of the supposed lack of global warming over the last ten years – they do this by starting their data series in 1998, which was a very hot year, making it appear as if cooling took place thereafter. Similarly, Busby et al exclude Welsh leaukaemia data between 1974-81 (when there was only one incidence on the North Wales coastal strip, despite a much more lax safety regime in Sellafield during that period and consequently far greater releases of radiation into the sea), and use instead the period 1982-90, when there were nine. Had Green Audit used the longer data series, their conclusions would not have been statistically significant, which was presumably why the earlier data was excluded.

Leaving aside ‘the science’ for a moment, Lynas misses the point — made here, often — that, as far as ‘the Deniers’ are concerned, there is no longer any good reason to take pronouncements from official science at face value. They have been politicised. Scientists now fulfil a political need. That is the price of politics that claims legitimacy in scientific authority. It no longer matters what official science says. Moreover, once environmentalists decided to invest their political capital in the notion of scientific certainty, they let the politically-and-financially-motivated-science cat out of the bag. After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if oil interests can influence the science, so too can the interests that stand to gain from seemingly eco-friendly policies.

And there are bloody good reasons for asking questions about ‘the science’. As Barry Woods asks at Lynas’s blog,

Franny Armstrong, in the Guardian scoop of the 10:10 ‘No Pressure’ video said 300,000 people were dying of climate change.

Am I a ‘deniar’ to ask her where she got that figure from, or ask Damian Carrington who wrote the story to verify her source for that statement.

The full story of Franny and the 300,000 ‘deaths from climate change’ claim can be read here.

The claim of X deaths per year from climate change belies the reality that each of those virtual deaths are from poverty, not from from climate change. This blog has argued that in this claim we can see climate politics preceding climate science. In order to make it stand, we have to presuppose that things could not have happened any other way than a small change in the weather causing so many deaths.
The implication is, then, that those people could not have been wealthier, so that they were not so vulnerable to the elements. Such a possibility is anathema to the environmentalists’ conception of the world. And this is the logic that Lynas carries forward in his fantasy, Six Degrees, and this highly deterministic, naturalistic view of the world is what the scientific establisment has bought into, not discovered through science. It is a value-driven view of the world, not a value-free investigation of it, as much as Presidents of the Royal Society protest otherwise.

So Lynas is left in a bind. If he really were to see the argument about trust through, he would realise his own role as the purveyor of distrust. If he were to start to understand himself, as he once stood alongside his former anti-nuclear colleagues, he would realise the fragility of scientific authority, used in lieu of trust. He would be forced, simultaneously, to understand the objections of the deniers, and he would start to see how trust in science is being squandered, colonised by empty political agendas such as his own.



  1. Rape of the Earth « SkeptEco - [...] this is an unfortunate error that Mark Lynas has himself been guilty of, while at the same time being…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.