Hat tip to contributor ‘Bob FJ’ who has alerted me to this transcript of Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse speaking on Australian public radio station ABC Radio National last Saturday. This is just the ‘climate bit’, but the whole thing is worth reading as an insight into Sir Paul’s thinking on matters of science policy and research direction. Apparently, he thinks the sceptics and ‘deniers’ are politically motivated cherry pickers. “Mr Pot, there’s a Mr Kettle on line two for you”.
The consensus view of the majority of expert climate scientists is very clear, that the globe has increased in temperature by around 0.8°C in the last 100 years, that this is largely due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, and these are a consequence, at least in part or a significant way, of human activity, and that a further rise of around 2° or maybe up to 4° can be expected in the next century. That would be the approximate consensus view.
Within this mainstream consensus view there is quite a lot of debate about aspects of the science, and that is a legitimate debate, you know, is it 1.5° or is it 3°, et cetera, and it particularly applies to predicting the future. And it’s made difficult because of the complexities of feedbacks within the global climate system. That makes it difficult to come to decisions.
But outside that consensus and outside that proper scientific debate that is occurring within that mainstream there are more extreme opinions. At one end it is argued that there is either no warming taking place or, if it is taking place, then human agency is not important. And at the other end it’s argued that global warming will be absolutely catastrophic. That’s the outliers.
There are supporters in both of these extreme positions in the public sphere but it is the former arguments, the ones that are more sceptical and denialist, that have gained more traction, even amongst individuals who normally would actually trust consensus scientific opinion. So why is this the case? What can we learn from this?
A feature of this controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that is a crucial point, because these actions are likely to include measures which involve greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. These are all critical key issues about which we should be worried.
But what in fact appears to happen is that the concerns at least of some of those worried about these types of actions, have led them to try and convince society by attacking the science of the majority of climate scientists and to use scientific arguments that on the whole are rather weak and unconvincing, and nearly always involve the cherry-picking of data. In other words, what’s happened is those who are very concerned about the outcomes and what one would have to do, in trying to make their argument have over-spilled into the science.
We saw that, for example, in Britain with a politician, Nigel Lawson, who would go on the television and talk about the scientific case, and he was trained as a politician; you made whatever case you can to convince the audience. So he would choose two points and say, look, no warming is taking place, knowing that all the other points you chose in the 20 years around it would not support his case, but he was just wanting to win that debate on television. And that is of course over-spilling political views into your science.
Several other features have complicated that situation. One has been a failure of some climate scientists to be as open as they should have been in making all their data available, and this has caused some to argue that the climate scientists are not behaving properly, that their data is wrong or that they are manipulating it. So that hasn’t been helpful.
Another feature, as I’ve already mentioned, is the complexity of climate science which leads to uncertainties in predictions. And this allows space for poorly evidenced but confidently stated opinions, which are sometimes mixed with personal attacks and misrepresentations to attract public and political attention. So there’s a bit of an unholy mix in all of this.
So what can we learn from it? Firstly it reinforces the points about the need to rely on the consensus view of expert scientists and the need to avoid cherry-picking of data and argument. But it also emphasises the need to keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and, for that matter, religious influence. This can be difficult, because after all we’re all human, but it is what we have to do, we have to keep the politics out of it.