Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nulius in verba: On the word of no one

Or how the Royal Society betrayed its original purpose to become another 
quasi governmental organization spewing the scientifically correct official line

By Andrew Montford

Foreword by Professor Richard Lindzen

Andrew Montford provides a straightforward and unembellished chronology of the perversion not only of The Royal Society but of science itself, wherein the legitimate role of science as a powerful mode of inquiry is replaced by the pretence of science to a position of political authority.

The simple chronology speaks for itself, though one cannot read it without thinking, at least, about the motivations. Already in the 19th century, gentleman scientists, like Darwin, noted the potential constraints on scientific inquiry that were associated with functioning within universities. The potential in recent years is obviously magnified by the near monopoly over science support exercised by governments. In the US, our National Academy of Science (NAS) has always had official status as adviser to the government. However, the role was relatively passive until the 1970s.

The 1970s saw a marked expansion of the National Research Council, the branch of the National Academy of Science responsible for responding to government requests. With the presidency of Frank Press (1981-1993), the staff of the NRC increased to over a thousand. Frank often boasted that The Royal Society was envious of the position of the NAS and the existence of its NRC. The global warming issue, it would appear, has offered The Royal Society the opportunity to rectify this situation.

Nevertheless, there are certain peculiarities of The Royal Society’s behavior that are perhaps worth noting. The presidents involved with this issue (May, Rees and Nurse) are all profoundly ignorant of climate science. Their alleged authority stems from their positions in the RS rather than from scientific expertise. This is evident in a variety of ways.

For example, in an exchange in the Financial Times (April 9, 2010), Martin Rees and Ralph Cicerone (President of the NAS) defended global warming concern by noting essentially that carbon dioxide (CO2) was increasing and that climate was changing. Of course, climate is always changing, and increasing CO2 must make some contribution, but none of this suggests anything alarming. The alarm results from controversial feedbacks wherein the small impacts of CO2 are, in current computer models, greatly amplified. With respect to these feedbacks, Rees and Cicerone say: “Uncertainties in the future rate of this rise (referring to global mean temperature anomaly), stemming largely from ‘feedback’ effects on water vapor and clouds are topics of current research.” That is to say, we don’t even know if there is a problem. Yet, Rees and Cicerone conclude: “Our academies will provide the scientific backdrop for the political and business leaders who must create effective policies to steer the world toward a low-carbon economy.”

In other words, regardless of the science, the answer is predetermined. Is this simply ignorance or dishonesty? My guess is that Rees and Cicerone were only mindlessly repeating a script prepared by the environmental movement. In this report Montford documents some disturbing general trends, which one can only hope that scientists of good standing shall increasingly continue to oppose.

Summary

For 300 years after its foundation, the Royal Society adopted a position of aloofness from political debates, refusing to become embroiled in the controversies of the day. This position was encapsulated in the Society’s journal, The Philosophical Transactions, which carried a notice that ‘It is neither necessary nor desirable for the Society to give an official ruling on scientific issues, for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room’.

In the 1960s, the society became increasingly involved at the interface of science and political policymaking.With the elevation of Robert May to the presidency, the Society became highly politicised, involving itself in political advocacy and media campaigns. In 1989 it had issued the first of its highly controversial position papers on climate change, a document that eschewed the sober language of the scientist in favour of denunciations of those who questioned the reality or extent of manmade global warming.

May’s political approach was continued by his successor, Martin Rees, with the Society’s authority being used to try to cut off funding of sceptic groups and with Rees putting forward positions on the economics of climate change. The Society issued a series of highly political statements demanding action from politicians.

Under Rees, another combative statement on the science of global warming was issued. With the Society again adopting a political rather than scientific tone, a substantial group of the fellows was stirred to action, demanding that the Society reconsider the unscientific way in which it was addressing the global warming question, the result being a much improved position paper on global warming that reflected at least some of the critics’ concerns.

Despite this, the Society has yet to distance itself from its former unscientific conduct, and the new president, Paul Nurse, has begun his term of office by staking out some very questionable positions on the role of scepticism in the climate debate.

Immense damage has been done to the reputation of the Society by its last three presidents. While the fellows’ rebellion has improved matters considerably, the continuing desire of the Society’s leadership to engage in political controversies represents a serious ongoing risk to the Society’s reputation and an abandonment of its principles.

Full report

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