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AGW: Restoring courtesy to the debate

When a situation has become so fraught, so polarized, that communication between opposing sides breaks down, "mediators" can be called in to set up a process that can enable and allow all parties to feel that they have been heard fairly. Recent engagement at WUWT with Roger Harrabin of the BBC suggests clearly to me a breakdown in communication, with all sides feeling misrepresented. I want to take the line among skeptics that Roger and the BBC are "innocent until proven guilty", but to do so, I would ask for some conditions for courtesy's sake. For not only does extra care with courtesy enable disputes to be resolved; I have discovered a surprise: courtesy is the best facilitator for scientific understanding itself to develop. In addition, many of the best scientists suffer from Asperger's Syndrome (as did Einstein and Newton). Classically, this condition gives passion for Truth to the point of obsession with a narrow field of interest, and difficulty with "normal" human interactions and communicating skills. Thus the Aspies are likely to do the most brilliant science, but they seldom end up as heads of departments, let alone media reporters. They are the ones who understand crucial details that reporters fail to grasp or even to recognize as significant. I know because I had the condition, and still retain many habits developed to cope with that experience.

(1) First, I am going to look at some historical issues that I think are crucial - so please hear me out. This may do three things: (a) it may exonerate the BBC, well, as nearly completely as one can hope for (b) it may give the BBC, in particular, Roger Harrabin and Richard Black, a way out, to salvage their reputation among skeptics, give them a future, and go a long way towards resolving the AGW issues (c) it may suggest future good practice (which may need to be enshrined by legislation, in order to protect the future integrity of Science).

(2) Second, I ask for special courtesy in responses, in order to give all sides a fair chance. I believe that the best skeptics blogs practice far higher standards of courtesy than are seen in the equivalent "warmist" blogs; I know that many became skeptics because of the difference in the levels of courtesy. Nevertheless, because of the deep breakdown of communication, it is easy for both sides to see insults even where none are intended. So I would like to see factual responses, evidence relevant to the core issues, as far as possible. Emotions are an important part of our nature, they are often the gut-reaction clues we get as to whether material is truth or rubbish. But in the driving-seat, they can precipitate divides. Good practice in rebuilding trust is to ask participants to "own" their feelings rather than give them "objective" status. So as Steve McIntyre says repeatedly: no "piling-on" of emotional response please. All this will help to isolate, distil, clarify, and agree the root issues, as if this blog were a science laboratory, or an awareness-raising workshop, and the issues required the same care of handling as one would apply to tiny but significant quantities, and delicate instruments which also includes human beings.

The communication problem has been building up for so long that we can hardly hope to resolve all conflict instantly. Much mischief is the result of unchecked "group think" by special interest groups, which the best of us do frequently and for the best of reasons. An agreement from all sides, that progress has been made, will, I think, be an excellent achievement.

This picture shows every email link found in the UEA emails, grouped into institutions and individuals.


I've been scanning responses on WUWT's post about Roger Harrabin's request for "tenured academic sceptics". Many skeptics feel this is already an impossible request, a request that already loads the dice, because these people, who should be the ones most able to put the skeptical scientific position, are actually the ones least able to speak out, owing to pressure from the scientific "consensus". I've had a productive exchange with Roger, and I've looked at some of Richard Black's material, and all this has left me with the feeling that both of them, and the BBC behind them, may have far more genuine intention to stay fair and open than their reporting suggests to most people here. But we have to go very carefully, and be wary of pitfalls, to open up this possible understanding.

First, let's look at the BBC policy regarding climate science reporting, as quoted by Robert Christopher on the WUWT Harrabin post:

“Climate change is another subject where dissenters can be unpopular. There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening, and that it is at least predominantly man-made. But the second part of that consensus still has some intelligent and articulate opponents, even if a small minority... The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus... But these dissenters (or even sceptics) will still be heard, as they should, because it is not the BBC’s role to close down this debate. They cannot be simply dismissed as ‘flat-earthers’ or ‘deniers’, who ‘should not be given a platform’ by the BBC. Impartiality always requires a breadth of view: for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space.”

See that small phrase "some of the best scientific experts". Let me raise the volume a little. SOME OF THE BEST SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS. Not my personal opinion, but it's the opinion of the BBC, and it may well have been an honest opinion.

But skeptics here can imagine who these experts could have been. How about Bob Ward, "Senior manager, policy communication" for the Royal Society until September 2006??? We can see something of his provenance and character here. Now it is no more than a possibility that Ward was one of the "experts". But Prof Lindzen's paper (Climate Science: is it currently designed to answer questions) demonstrates the infiltration of activists by back-door methods into influential positions in key scientific bodies, over the last twenty years or so. These are people with an agenda - even if the agenda appears to be important, like "saving the planet". Paradoxically, emotionally-based campaigns for a green, sustainable future, in becoming special-interest groups, developing "groupthink", relaxing traditional good standards of Scientific Method and Practice, and losing sight of Truth itself, in exaggerating claims of danger, attacking and defaming fair challengers, and ignoring basic sanity checks, have themselves become a danger to our future, and an easy way for those like Al Gore to grab power and make money.

Innocent reasons for the present situation

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am observing powerful, innocent reasons that even the "best scientific experts" may be misguided, and may have given the BBC misguided advice. The world have seen an unparalleled rate of material change, as well as material growth of population, that has happened due to the material benefits of modern Science. But much of this still depends on material and resources that are ultimately limited, even if they are far more plentiful than some fearmongers maintain; it is still important to consider issues of longterm sustainability. With powerful evidence of our ability to change the environment, it is natural to be concerned about whether our activities may be having effects on the climate. And we cannot omit the religious, spiritual and experiential dimensions, in these issues. Often the material changes overwhelm and confuse; traditional religions seem inadequate, or else God is sought with fundamentalist ardour to shut out all doubts; there is often a gap in the soul, that feels it is unscientific to embrace spiritual reality, but still experiences apocalyptic fear for the future and obsessive activity, supposedly to build a "sustainable future" but in reality to avoid facing the naked fear. However, one thing we need as a foundation is a science and understanding of reality itself that we can trust. And herein lies a big problem for Climate Science.

Science has grown out of all recognition in both extent and complexity. But as specializations proliferate, the number of experts in each specialization grows smaller. Traditionally, the peer-review system depends on unprejudiced review; but the Climategate emails have shown a corruption of the whole peer-review process, where a tiny cabal of experts took it over, to promote their own secondrate "science" and exclude anything that challenged the validity of that "science", whether or not the challenge was sound. IT DIDN'T USE TO BE LIKE THIS!! The science I studied at school was the soul of trustworthiness, which one breathed in every time one entered the labs and the classrooms, because it was built on Scientific Method and human courtesy; experts couldn't possibly lie over serious issues, because their results had to be reproduceable and auditable; their colleagues would disbar them for lying, because humankind needs foundations of truth. With complexification, the situation in Science has changed.

Not-so-innocent origins

Much goes back to 1988 when James Hansen delivered a warning speech in a stage-managed heat trap for the US Senate, and the IPCC was established by the U.N. to assess "the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change." IPCC was formed to assess risks and recommend an appropriate response. But in practice, it bypasses the very basis of Science by assuming that AGW is an already-proven fact.

The IPCC is not Science, it is a lookalike, and as recent events are increasingly showing the public, it has become a fraudulent usurper. Openness to objective truth in Science is utterly essential, and, unlike what the BBC directive says, mere numbers of believers, or even 2500 IPCC "scientists", is actually completely irrelevant; just one piece of contradictory evidence is enough to overturn a century of scientific hypotheses on the AGW in which millions now believe. And unlike what IPCC and "top scientific experts" suggest, there are not just a few, but thousands of scientific pieces of evidence challenging every single part of the AGW thesis.

A significant historical factor is Maggie Thatcher. She knew her science degree was unusual for a politician, and she used it to gain power over the miners by taking hold of, and magnifying, the AGW threat that had appeared like a tiny blip in Science. She gave research grants in any discipline that promised to look for evidence upholding AGW; she decreased all other research grants; she founded the Hadley Centre. I think her legacy was slowly cumulative, like that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Researchers learned to get grants by promising to research more and more alarming climate issues; apocalyptic research caught on and became multinational business and the darling of the media.

The current challenge

The current challenge is to demonstrate, to such as Roger Harrabin (degree in English) and Richard Black (PhD in economics), that the most fundamental scientific propositions in AGW, and indeed, Scientific Method itself, the very foundations of Science, are what the issue is about. Orthodox science institutions now say that the existence of dangerous AGW has long been agreed by the "consensus" of scientists and doesn't need further discussion because "time is short" if we are to take "action" to "prevent" it. And with "evidence" by the bucketful from the scientific establishment, people believe [note: believe] the proofs without further check, become "activists", and harrass those who challenge the basics of AGW into silence. I have been there myself. Those who should be most free and able to investigate and report the real science are now the ones who have been most threatened into silence or drilled into conformity - tenured academics. The WUWT thread is already evidence of this key group of witnesses.

Therefore, what is needed for these disenfranchised experts to speak up is a written promise from the BBC that such scientists will have the right to the final approval of what (of their statements) goes out in any programme. Plus, they should be granted the chance to answer others' objections to their statements on the programme, as is sine qua non (or is certainly supposed to be) in science journals.

The "drilling into conformity" often happened for the best of reasons, as detailed earlier. Most public dissenters are retired, or from other disciplines, or have somehow reached a point of "nothing to lose by speaking the truth". The very basis of Scientific Method, namely reproduceability and auditability, has been compromised; and there are many scientists of high standing and expertise, as well as many others who have studied the relevant science, who know that AGW is essentially flawed, not once but over and over, holed under the water line by a monumental iceberg of hidden evidence, as surely as was the Titanic.

The real science

It is true that the Earth has been warming over the last century; it is true that this warming cannot be explained by "total solar irradiance" changes; it is true that the level of CO2 has risen; it is true that CO2 is an important greenhouse gas; it is true that the annual rise in CO2 is comparable in size to (about half the size of) our annual emissions; it is true that even at the beginning of the twentieth century there were scientists concerned at the possible effects of our CO2 emissions. But further than that, we find nothing more than amazing coincidences and correlations, with zero proof of causation. Every single one of these statements can be challenged on many fronts, shown to be misleading, and in no way constitute a proof, or even the slightest quantity of evidence, of AGW. Moreover, there are many further complications that are rooted in poor, misleading, and sometimes downright fraudulent science; the Urban Heat Island effect is one such issue; temperature records themselves are under question; the "proxy" reconstruction of earlier times is seriously under fire; all the "alarmist" prognoses of extreme weather, and of computer models, are belied by the actual records.

Reflections - how to protect the integrity of science

Currently we have an unbelievable, unfortunate situation. But it would not be the first time that humankind has been overtaken by mass delusions. You have only to read about Tulip-mania, or the South Sea Bubble, or the Crusades to find others who have said in effect "we cannot all be wrong". Much of AGW is a strange combination of sheer coincidence in natural climate cycles, as well as lack of "back to basics" in checking the science. At first it grew innocently, slowly, and apparently usefully, like the Sorcerer's Apprentice's broom. Only later did corruption take a greater hold.

The real questions now are, how best to re-establish and protect integrity in Science, how best to rescue the passengers still on the Titanic, and how best to uphold justice and deal fairly with the key offenders, many of whom have been motivated, at least in part, by genuine concern.

Scientific Practice needs rethinking regarding how to keep it truly open, and how to protect Science's integrity from corruption in the future. Paradoxically, we need to re-include human values to safeguard this integrity - coming from the very same inner realm of experiences that was originally, and with justification, excluded from Scientific Method. Now the humanity has to be rebuilt, not just touchy-feelie-post-modern, but through the great key of Scientific Method itself, applied to our inner realms. This embraces much of what we know today as good psychology, and more. Science needs to rediscover its "citizen science" roots and reclaim this for the future, and become truly transparent, checkable, and open to challenge, by people of ordinary intelligence. Before implementing horrendously expensive policy, scientific truth and open verifiability are essential. This back-to-basics check is the only Precautionary Principle worth its salt. All this work is being achieved by the skeptics blogs who are most ably pointing the way forward. I taught myself the science and then wrote it up as a Primer (click my name) Many readers at the Times Higher Educational supplement have appreciated it, so perhaps our two BBC reporters might consider studying my Primer as well.

Anne Stallybrass aka Lucy Skywalker

Page built 6th February 2010



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