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Scientific alliance

An axis of extremism

In today’s Guardian, the director of something called the “Scientific Alliance” responds to a story on how the Royal Society has asked Exxon to stop funding global-warming denial groups:

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?

10 comments
  1. 1  JCR  September 22, 2006, 11:51 am 

    The denial of having received money from ExxonMobil is typical of these barely concealed special interest groups. They can claim independence simply because they receive their money from an organization that receives its funding from ExxonMobil. In the drug trade that’s called money-laundering. However, it does give us a terrific opportunity to coin a new phrase, “Unspend”.

  2. 2  SP  September 22, 2006, 1:53 pm 

    I don’t know of any evidence that the “Scientific Alliance” actually received money from the other organisation mentioned in the article, the George C Marshall Institute.

    Of course it might be significant, on the other hand, that the “Scientific Alliance” denies being funded by ExxonMobil in particular, not by any oil company.

  3. 3  Geoff Coupe  September 22, 2006, 5:18 pm 

    I note that their first “key aim” published on their web site is: “Promote sound science in the environmental debate”. Ding! There it is again: “sound science”. I think I hear the sound of an unspeak warning bell…

  4. 4  David Duff  September 23, 2006, 7:44 pm 

    Well, you might just have convinced me of your credentials as a high-minded defender of objective, scientific reasoning until you went in for a nice bit of smear and innuendo yourself.

    Thus, “phrases such as the scientific establishment are loaded with implicit criticism” is trotted out with due sanctimony but is then followed by this classic piece of smear by association, “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.” Golly-Gosh, and who did I see *you* sitting next to in a Clapham omnibus the other day?

    The you go one better with this ripe old cheese, “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.” Nudge, nudge, know what I mean? Er, well, yes, until I read it carefully and now I can’t see any connection between the two because (linguistically) no two words are the same and only one has a similar root and that word is “science” which given the subject matter is hardly surprising.

    However, what I do pick up loud and clear is *your* message. Frankly I don’t care whther in this particular case you are right or wrong but your pretence at being somehow ‘more objective than thou’ is risible.

    And on the particular subject let me tell you that I have lived long enough to remember the same sort of ‘experts’ warning us all that a new ice-age was imminent!

  5. 5  SP  September 23, 2006, 8:30 pm 

    Smear by assocation? Don’t be silly. I was merely reporting what was in written in the article to which this writer was responding.

    Later on I was talking about the similarity of the ideas of “alliance” and “coalition”, but you appear to have missed this point despite apparently “reading it carefully” – or maybe you deliberately cut off your quotation just in time to avoid mentioning it. Good work!

    I have lived long enough to remember the same sort of ‘experts’ warning us all that a new ice-age was imminent!

    Oh, you must be right, then.

  6. 6  David Duff  September 24, 2006, 9:44 am 

    So reporting a smear is not a smear. Interesting!

    Now let us consider this, written in your own words: “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 words ‘alliance’ and ‘coalition’ have no virtue (or vice) entailed in their meaning, so why introduce the adjective “virtuous” with an implied sneer?. Nor does an ‘alliance/coalition’ predicate a determination “to get at the truth”, after all, it might be an ‘alliance/coalition’ of propogandists, or advertisers, or Left-wing hacks – perish the thought! The two words simply mean a group of people or organisations of people who are prepared to combine on some issue. Do please try to remember that “words are weapons” as some pompous pontificator once wrote!

    In my naivitee I like to pretend that *all* scientists strive to reach the truth even those whose government grants (and salaries and pensions, etc) depend on them coming up with ‘research’ in line with what their political masters have been spouting in public, just like those in the pay of oil companies whose pressure is equal but opposite – to use a scientific term. Unfortunately, much scientific ‘truth’ is shrouded and so, in the meantime and quite properly, scientists hypothesise. Well, we can all do that, can’t we, but who is to know who is right and who is wrong, which brings me back to those ‘experts’ of only 40 years ago who told everyone that the ice-age was coming. I didn’t believe them any more than I believe this lot telling me we’re about to fry. I do believe that the temperature of the earth is changing for the simple empirical reason that it has always changed since it came into existence. Question is, which way, up or down?

    I thought you modern, young hacks were supposed to be cynical, sceptical ‘seekers of truth and justice’ and here you are sounding like an Hallelujah chorus for those perennial liars ‘Greenwar’ or ‘Enemies of the Earth’, or whatever they call themselves! Get a grip!

  7. 7  SP  September 24, 2006, 4:47 pm 

    Gosh, you are getting good at stopping your quotations just before the relevant part. My point about the alliance being “determined to get at the truth” is explained in the next sentence of the post: because it’s a scientific alliance.

    I do believe that the temperature of the earth is changing for the simple empirical reason that it has always changed since it came into existence. Question is, which way, up or down?

    That’s easy: up.

  8. 8  Bob Calder  September 28, 2006, 12:10 am 

    The answer of course, is yes. Your critical readers obviously don’t read much scientific literature.

    You should have been at the UCC meeting when the lid came off the Administration’s bullying of employed scientists. The very concept that the opposite is a “truism” is intellectual flatulence.

    What I see in the above posts is nothing more than the same generated by Gary Inhof US Senator this week:
    http://epw.senate.gov/pressite.....;party=rep
    The subject says media but the target is “Climate Porn” among other pejoratives directed at the alarmists who are substituted for the literally hundreds of respectable climatologists.

    This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m not above it.

  9. 9  daelm  March 14, 2007, 10:09 am 

    SourceWatch has the details:

    It’s principal drivers are Mark Adams, director of Foresight Communications (a political consultancy, or ‘lobbying firm’) and Robert Durward. The Scotsman provided the following capsule bio of the latter:

    “Outspoken on Europe, an avowed enemy of environmentalists, an opponent of “witchhunts” against drink-drivers and an advocate of letting the army sort out schools, hospitals, and roads, Robert Wilson Menzies Durward, 51, has a track record of putting his money where his mouth is when he wants to get his political point across.”

    What they didn’t mention is that the money he puts where his mouth is amounts to many millions.

    Durward and Adams, the latter of whom has a number of Durward’s businesses on the books of Foresight Communications, are believed to have started the Alliance together, though I would imagine it’s a Durward project facilitated by Adams.

    Given Durward’s proclivities and his known antipathy for environmental science, the distinctly politically charged nature of the relationship, as well as the fact of there being primarily a single donor (Durward), and given that Durward and Adams have attempted to distract from their relationship by using the ‘British Aggregates Association’, a Durward front, as intermediary, I’d think Stephen has got it exactly right.

    Amongst the Alliance’s advisory group are a number of proponents of GM agriculture, who also have a vested interest in attacking cautionary science, including members of the lobbying group Sense About Science, an organization created solely for the purposes of advancing GM food production through contesting science that cautioned against it.

    It should be fairly obvious that the Alliance is not a neutral party, not even necessarily a scientific one, and is in fact a lobby group. It was founded with a specific agenda to advance, has no claim to impartiality, despite the support for this it receives from its own designation as ‘scientific’ body, and should not be regarded as an authority in any sense. Authority in any empirical field rests on the willingness to assess all data. Agenda-driven lobbying fronts cannot do so.

    That Adams and Durward attempt to position the Alliance as an expert body, all the above notwithstanding speaks volumes about their integrity and lack thereof, and further demolishes the project’s credibility. It also makes very clear what the general goals of the project are. Hint: they are not scientific.

  10. 10  Dublin Opinion » Unspinning the Swindle  March 14, 2007, 4:07 pm 

    [...] And then Stephen comments devastatingly: “Well, never mind that “Melanie” is a scientific and mathematical idiot.[…] The documentary, which I have seen, was mere trash, whose one credited “Scientific Advisor” is a non-scientist from the Scientific Alliance, and whose one unarguable truth came in the introductory voiceover promising: “You are being told lies.” (The programme’s selective massaging of data, misleading of one of its contributors, and manifold outright deceptions are documented here, here and here.) [...]



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