Should we censor fake science?

April 28, 2007

I have a confession to make. I do a lot of flying, and I don’t offset my carbon emissions. My hypocrisy is compounded by the fact that most of the flying I do is in the name of understanding climate change and its impacts on human societies, and, even worse, helping developing countries to adapt to the emerging impacts of climate change. Terrible, isn’t it – as I work in the field of climate change I must inevitably go around preaching about how bad it is and how we must all change our ways in order to save the world. And yet I’m not “doing my bit” in the great war against global warming. How can I be the shrill eco-fascist that I must be, being a climate scientist and therefore by definition an “environmentalist” and fully paid up greenie, if I don’t practice what I preach?

There are a number of reasons for my apathy when it comes to offsetting, which I won’t go into now. What I want to address here is the apparently widely held opinion that studying climate change from a scientific perspective makes one an “environmentalist”. A logical extension of this blurring of science and advocacy is the related view that any scientist who is convinced by the evidence before him that human-induced climate change or “global warming” is real has taken a side in a debate about what sort of society we should be living in.

True, many scientists working in the field of climate change do have a sentimental attachment to the planet Earth as we know it, and to the “global civilisation” that we have created, and would rather see both survive. Many, perhaps most, see climate change as a threat to the Earth’s biosphere – or at least to the current configuration of that biosphere – and to human civilisation. However, many of those whose research deals with changes occurring on geological timescales take a rather relaxed attitude to catastrophic change, and lose little sleep over the prospect of large-scale ecosystem collapse and mass extinction. After all, these have happened before as a result of other forces, and in the grand geological scheme of things civilisation and even humanity is rather unimportant. Then there are those who wouldn’t mourn the passing of our ecologically unsustainable consumer civilisation, and who see its collapse as inevitable and indeed necessary before something more sensible can take its place. Finally, there are those who just enjoy doing the science and who aren’t that bothered, or don’t think too much, about what happens in the world at large.

The point here is that scientists who study climate change hold a variety of opinions about it. However, the vast majority (and I mean really vast) are convinced that it is happening. And here we return with a tragic inevitability to Martin Durkin and “The Great Global Warming Swindle”.

Regardless of their personal views on climate change, climate scientists loathe Durkin, not because he has evidence that challenges the prevailing consensus that climate change is real and is currently being driven predominantly by human activity (he doesn’t), but because he has set out to rubbish good science with pseudo-science through the propagation of climate change myths. Most climate scientists suspect that he knows his arguments are weak, and perhaps even realises they are fatally flawed, but believe he is going ahead with his campaign to mislead the public regardless for some other nefarious purpose, whether this be financial, ideological or personal (my money is on ideological).

The kindest thing we can say about Durkin and his supporters is that they don’t understand anything about the scientific process, and even less about the science of climate change. If they did they would know that the arguments in “Swindle” are at best flawed and at worst bogus. However, understanding or lack of it is probably irrelevant, as Durkin appears to be basing his position on belief, in a certain knowledge that he, a non-scientist, is right, and that the scientists are wrong about this complex scientific issue. But Durkin doesn’t care much for the difference between rigorous science and uninformed opinion, and would have the public believe that the motivation and methodology of scientists is the same as that of lobbyists and ideologues such as himself. To Durkin and his supporters we are all yoghurt-weaving eco-loonies – studying climate science and being on what he sees as wrong side in the so-called “scientific debate” is equivalent to chucking bricks through shop windows or forcibly converting people to tree-worshiping.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say it’s good that the alternative opinion about climate change represented in “Swindle” has been aired, as it makes for a healthy debate. And the key word here is “opinion”. Opinions are great when they contribute to an ethical debate relating to how we should approach a particular problem or issue. (I’ve also heard it said that opinions are like arseholes – everybody has one, but very few bear close inspection.) Science, however, is not about opinion and subjective argument, but about evidence. Durkin, while cloaking his arguments in shabby pseudo science, is not a scientist, and has no new scientific evidence to support his claim that our current understanding of climate change is wrong. The “evidence” he presented in “Swindle” is not evidence, but a rehashing of arguments which were put forward years ago and which did not stand up to scrutiny (see the UK Met. Office’s “Climate Change Myths” page).

Since “Swindle” was broadcast, there have been calls for its distribution to be suppressed. Durkin and his chums, including the editor of Spiked (an organ with its roots in the old RCP, of which Durkin was a member – see earlier posts) have cried censorship, and accused the green lobby of trying to suppress dissent and close down debate (see article). Inevitably he has received a lot of sympathy, casting himself as the victim of an intolerant and totalitarian green lobby.

Well, you can see Durkin’s point. We should all be allowed to have our say, and there should be open public debate about important issues. But should this open public debate extend to facilitating the deliberate dissemination of cynical propaganda based on fake science and designed with one purpose – to confuse and mislead the public? I’m posing this as an open question, as I remain undecided. Ultimately the responsibility must lie with broadcasters airing programmes like “Swindle”, and as a rule broadcasters are interested in spectacle and ratings, not accuracy. There is a strong tradition of polemical programme making in the UK, which has produced some important and provocative works. It would be dangerous to start censoring work that contradicted prevailing orthodoxies, perhaps as dangerous as the deliberate spreading of misinformation about one of the most important and urgent problems facing humanity today. The best response from the scientific community might be another documentary taking apart the assertions in “Swindle” point by point (and it wouldn’t be difficult). This could do much to reassure those members of the public who have been confused by “Swindle”, accepting the credibility of the less serious contributors and trusting the honesty of the editing process. The media might like it too – they always love a good scrap. In the meantime we can hope that for the most part “Swindle” was preaching to the converted, and be thankful that nobody in the policy community seems to be taking it seriously.

There has been a bit of a hoo-ha about the impending release of “Swindle” on DVD, with suggestions that its DVD release should be suppressed, that it should be edited, that it should include some sort of counter-argument, and so on. My suggestion is that the DVD be released uncut, but that each case carries a sticker reading “This programme contains lies”.

I’m still angry, and not about the end of the world, but about the perversion of science that this programme represents. If humanity wants to make a collective decision to screw itself and destroy the crappy civilisation it’s constructed on the back of ecological idiocy then fine by me. I just want this decision to be properly informed, and made in the light of real, not fake, science.