An axis of extremism
September 22, 2006
I have to register my concern at the increasing intolerance of normal scientific argument by the scientific establishment.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made a political synthesis of the work of many hundreds of expert scientists, and implies that the science is settled. Far from it: there is very considerable uncertainty about the influence of various drivers on global climate. Science is not democratic. Science doesn’t work by consensus. Science calls for an honest evaluation of theories in the light of all available evidence. Theories stand or fall on the basis of interpretation and discussion of the evidence, not attacks on the integrity of those you may disagree with. The Royal Society is indeed taking an unprecedented step: it is seeking to close down debate, which is deeply disturbing.
The Scientific Alliance has never received money from ExxonMobil. And we will continue to encourage rational scientific debate, whoever chooses to fund us and whatever the official view of the Royal Society.
Denialists often appeal to the conspiracy-theory reflex. Thus phrases such as the scientific establishment are loaded with implicit criticism. The very word establishment seems most often to be used to evoke a kind of complacent groupthink: an “establishment view” is usually called such when someone disagrees with it . . .
The IPCC, according to this letter, has made a “political synthesis” of scientific views, although what exactly the dark politics behind it are, he is not saying. Oddly, the writer insists that theories ought not to be judged by “attacks on the integrity of those you may disagree with” – and yet his insinuation of a “political synthesis” by the IPCC appears to be precisely an attack on the integrity of that body.
Apparently, the IPCC “implies that the science is settled”. Of course, it does no such thing, periodically reporting on areas of uncertainty and the need for further research. What is settled, however, is that anthropogenic global warming is real. As Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography put it in 2004, “The debate about whether there is a global warming signal now is over, at least for rational people.”
But let us not be too biased in favour of rational people. “Science is not democratic. Science doesn’t work by consensus,” the writer insists. Well, yes and no. It is true that a consensus may be overturned by new evidence, or by the work of a maverick genius, a Galileo or an Einstein. But the consensus will only be overturned after scientists’ democratic scrutiny of the new results – ie, once there is a new consensus that the old consensus was false. And in other ways, such as the peer-review tradition, or the requirement that experimental results be reproducible, science clearly does work by consensus. Denials of this fact are the obvious rhetorical strategy in the face of overwhelming evidence: they also happen to be the stock-in-trade, for example, of the neocreationists who tout “intelligent design”.
The writer’s organisation, he points out, “has never received money from ExxonMobil”. That is good to know, although the article he is responding to made a different claim, that in 2004 they published a joint report (denying any link between atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperature) with another body that had received money from ExxonMobil.
It behoves us at least to acknowledge that the “Scientific Alliance” is a good name. Perhaps you find it linguistically reminiscent of the name of the “Advancement of Sound Science Coalition”, an old US lobbying body funded by Philip Morris and Exxon, among others, that worked to deny research on the link between tobacco and lung cancer, as well as denying global warming. The virtuous term alliance, just as with the virtuous term coalition, speaks of a voluntary community of the concerned, a coalition of the willing determined to get at the truth. The Scientific Alliance, moreover, is not merely a Science Alliance. The alliance itself is scientific, predicated on empirical rigour.
But there remains a curious contradiction. The organisation pooh-poohs the notion that democracy has any place in science, and yet it wants “rational debate”, and its very name, in its invocation of an alliance, appeals to a sort of democratic virtue. Of course, a coalition or an alliance is also a group of belligerents fighting on the same side. Might it be more accurate to say that such groups are allies in a war on science?