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In his new position as president of The Royal Society, Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse took the opportunity to present an episode of Horizon on the BBC, titled “Science under Attack” (BBC, 9pm, 24th Jan 2011). Now, you might expect that the president of The Royal Society would be someone who upholds scientific principles above everything. But no. Right from the very beginning in his opening comments he commented on the archives of the Royal Society as ‘bearing witness to over 350 years of scientific achievement’. I don’t think anyone is disputing that enormous gains in scientific knowledge have been made, as well as the scientific knowledge leading to technological progress. But there was no mention of 350 years of scientific blunders, fraud and unethical behaviour that inevitably accompanies any field of human endeavour - No, just the progress. Neither was there any mention of the fact that scientific consensus has been wrong on many occasions, repeatedly, and a prolonged refusal to acknowledge evidence contrary to ideas held by the majority of established experts in the relevant fields. With his reverential tones when describing scientists and scientific institutions, from the start this programme made it clear it was a hagiography of the orthodox establishment. And not surprisingly, scientific bandwagons he presented as being unfairly ‘under attack’ from naïve groups of people being misled by wayward ‘experts’ were Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) – now re-branded ‘climate change’ due to evidence of global cooling – vaccines, GM foods, and HIV/AIDS.
The programme was portrayed as if it was an even-handed investigation into whether the challenges to scientific claims of those political juggernauts were justified. In reality it was an almost perfect demonstration of how to use a wide variety of techniques to essentially ridicule dissenting views without seeming to be deliberately doing so. These techniques included: careful selection of evidence from both sides to maximise the apparent weight of one side and minimise the weight of the other; distortion of opposing points of view; using disingenuous language to minimise flaws in your own side and weaken the strength of another; appealing to people’s faith in established institutions; impressing with general references to vast quantities of data; using visually impressive graphics to make it seem as though one side had the best arguments; appealing to people’s sometimes inappropriate and unquestioning faith in consensus of experts; Emphasising the credentials and resources of institutions that promote one side, while speaking to seemingly-isolated and unresourced individuals on the other; quoting people on an opposing side without adequate context; promoting principled behaviour that the other side IS doing more of and his own side is doing less of; and just blatantly claiming or presupposing basic facts to be so that cannot be claimed with any such certainty whatsoever.
At first I couldn’t tell from this programme whether Sir Paul Nurse was genuinely deluded by serious flaws in his intellectual capabilities or blatantly lying, but either way, an honest and even-handed investigation it was not.
For example, one technique is to ‘miss the point’ of opposing arguments. Sir Paul presented Phil Jones of East Anglia University as the injured party in Climategate, declaring that the university was cleared of scientific wrong-doing. Christopher Booker has pointed out that all of the supposed investigations had carefully avoided the challenging scientific questions at the heart of the issue, such as the prolonged finagling of climate temperatures, something that Paul Nurse didn’t mention.
Another technique is to superficially challenge something that doesn’t actually respond to the original opposing point of argument. Paul Nurse interviewed NASA scientist Dr Bob Bindschadler who referred to AGW skeptic’s assertions that weather is more influenced by the sun than carbon dioxide. He said, “When you look at the data, the sun doesn’t turn out to be that important…If you look at the small variations in the solar radiation and the variations in the climate data that we have now, with these datasets, they don’t match up, so there is just no doubt that the sun is not a primary factor driving the climate change that we’re living through right now”. Superficially, and accompanied by some very wizzy graphics, that sounds like a robust rebuttal of the claim by climate change denialists / climate realists (choose your stance) that the sun is a major influencer of the climate. However, one place I read (where regrettably I now can’t find the link), one commentator said that some warmists fraudulently claim to dismiss the relevance of solar activity by citing total solar radiation, rather than selected category of solar activity used to make weather predictions. Additionally, astrophysicist and meteorologist Piers Corbyn from WeatherAction.com said in 2008 in response to the BBC programme “Climate Wars”:
“The main periodical solar activity effect - the largest observed periodicity present in world temperature data - is the 22 year cycle (driven by sun-earth magnetic connectivity). Hence for about half the time, the 11 year cycle of solar activity of particles, sunspots and radiation will move with temperature and half the time move against it. This is well known to solar and climate scientists. All the pseudo-scientists have done is essentially choose time spans where the two move in opposite directions and ignore demonstrated correlations on longer time spans. Those who do this are either unbelievably ignorant of their own subject or deliberately deceptive. BBC web 'information' on the matter refuses to publish the truth despite requests and in this programme avoids interviewing scientists in Britain or overseas who research, understand and apply sun-earth magnetic and particle effects in provably skilled weather and climate forecasting. CO2 based climate and seasonal weather forecasts on the other hand show no skill, have been abysmally incorrect for a decade and have got worse in the last few years.”
It’s now been proven that on 25th October the Met office in the UK, led by AGW champion Robert Napier, confirmed a weather prediction for winter 2010/2011 that was hopelessly inaccurate in the extreme, and no significant correction was subsequently forthcoming. Long-range weather forecasters WeatherAction.com rely predominantly on solar and lunar factors as drivers of climatic conditions and On 1st December Piers Corbyn posted a video on youtube claiming that the period December to February would be “exceptionally cold and snowy, like hell frozen over at times, with much of England, Germany, Benelux and Northern France suffering one of the coldest winters for over 100 years, with two of the months December, January or February likely to be in the three coldest for 100 years”. Furthermore he said, “During this time, standard meteorology will consistently underestimate the lengths of these cold periods and will also grossly underestimate the severity of blizzards and snow deluges at times”. But even earlier than Weather Action, James Madden of Exacta Weather, AKA ukweathergeek, using similar models as Weather Action, posted a youtube video on 18th September – over a month earlier than the Met office confirming ‘no clear signals’ about the weather for the UK winter – explaining in detail why he expected the 2010/2011 winter to be more severe than 2009/2010, and why 2011/2012 was expected to be worse still.
Now, it’s fair to say that one swallow does not make a summer, but Piers Corbyn claims Weather Action have an 85% accuracy in long-range prediction of extreme weather, whereas Met office, long range forecasts are generally regarded as pretty unreliable after about 4 days. This is comparable in principle to stock-market forecasting, where technical techniques can be used for relatively short term predictions, but the longer out you go, the more the fundamentals of a company, the industry and the economy as a whole have an effect. If you can’t make good long-term predictions, then you haven’t got hold of the correct fundamental drivers.
As Stephen Hawking said, “A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements,and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.” It’s interesting to note that the Met office has one of the most powerful computers in the world, an IBM supercomputer capable of 100 trillion calculations per second, and takes in hundreds of thousands of weather observations from all over the world that it runs through a weather-predicting model containing over 100 million lines of code. Weather Action doesn’t have that. The Met office also claims it uses all this power to also make climate predictions decades into the future. How can we trust their predictions decades into the future if they can’t even make reasonable predictions only a couple of months ahead?
Another technique used to dismiss an opponent’s arguments is to accuse the other side of inappropriate behaviour - either dishonest tactics or flawed thinking - that in reality is exactly what your own preferred side is doing. In moving towards a conclusion Sir Paul said, “I think some extreme sceptics decide what to think first, and then cherry-pick the data to support their case…” Hello??? Isn’t that what dissenters on AIDS science have been saying about the AIDS orthodoxy for decades now? And Daily Telegraph blogger James Delingpole felt somewhat cheated by the careful selection of about two minutes from a three-hour interview having been misled about the nature of the interview in the first place, saying:
Nurse came to interview me at my home last summer, ostensibly – so his producer assured me – as a disinterested seeker-after-truth on a mission to discover why the public is losing its faith in scientists. “Not scientists,” I replied. “Just ‘climate scientists.’” But as is clear from the Horizon documentary Nurse had already made up his mind. That’s why about the only section he used out of at least three hours’ worth of footage is the one where he tosses what he clearly imagines is the killer question: Suppose you were ill with cancer would you wish to be treated by “consensus” medicine or something from the quack fringe?
As you’ll see in the programme, this took me rather by surprise. Nurse had come posing as an open-minded investigator eager to hear why Climategate had raised legitimate doubts about the reliability of the “consensus” on global warming. Instead, the man I met was a parti-pris bruiser so delighted with his own authority as a proper Nobel-prizewinning scientist that he knew what the truth was already. And to prove it, here was a brilliant analogy which would rubbish the evil climate deniers’ cause once and for all!
So, no misleading deception or cherry-picking by Sir Paul Nurse there then.
One of the few problems Paul Nurse identified realistically is that in complex systems it can be hard to determine an exact relationship between cause and effect, and sometimes, which is the cause, and which is the effect. This is of course exactly one of the issues with orthodox climate change theories, because for hundreds of thousands of years the evidence was that carbon dioxide levels were led by global temperatures – apparently by a rather substantial margin of around 800 years – rather than preceding them. If the cause comes after the effect, it can’t be the cause. He used the ‘failing to understand complex systems’ argument to dismiss Tony Lance’s argument that serious disruptions to intestinal flora were a major factor in the AIDS syndrome in gay men, almost as if that was the only counter-argument against the orthodox model of HIV/AIDS. Paul Nurse neatly ignored the fact that Tony’s doctor had predicted that without the AIDS drugs Tony would be dead in a couple of years and 13 years later he quite clearly wasn’t.
Tony never intended it to explain ALL cases of AIDS in gay men in any case, and certainly not all cases of AIDS, he was saying it was a seriously overlooked factor that could account for a very significant proportion of cases in a specific subset of the population. But of course, Paul went all the way to America to see him, as if he was an isolated individual that he had to go a long way to find, and didn’t bother making the long trek from London to Luton to talk to HEAL London.org, a UK organisation providing practical support for people diagnosed HIV+ who are questioning the orthodox model of AIDS. (vested interest declared: I run HEAL London)
Paul Nurse failed to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily dissenters who are over-simplifying things and getting them confused; Many people challenging the orthodox model of HIV/AIDS suggest that the varying manifestations of AIDS in different groups of people have different and even multiple causes. It is the orthodox scientific establishment that has made serious flaws in their analysis of complex systems to make grossly oversimplified and ultimately seriously misleading claims of cause and effect. As Einstein was reputed to have said, “Keep things as simple as possible – but no simpler”. But a simple and easy-to-understand direct cause-and-effect relationship is great for political reasons: It makes for good soundbites, and it either creates a nice intellectually-simple solution (vaccines, GM foods) or an easily identifiable enemy to fight (HIV, C02), and is much easier to get funding for. It’s easier to get attention for, “We’ve found the cause of AIDS – it’s a deadly, sexually-transmitted virus and everyone is at risk”, or “If we don’t reduce carbon dioxide production we’re all going to die”, than, “Hmmm, your simple cause doesn’t fit the data as well as this politically-unpopular cause”, or, “You’ve not followed scientifically-robust procedures properly and therefore your conclusions and everything based on them might be incorrect.”
What this whole situation highlights is that in every field of human endeavour that comes into being to solve life’s problems, what may start off as the pursuit of truth, justice and freedom, ends up reaching some point at which it gradually and unrecognisably transmogrifies into being about power. It’s not necessarily that truth no longer matters, but when push comes to shove, the survival and power of individual professionals, the organisation, or the industry, takes priority over truth.
As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. As I have said for several years, the most dangerous and insidious form of power is unquestioning faith on the part of the public affected by that power. This has been most comprehensively demonstrated by the exposure of the worldwide scandal of child abuse by priests and nuns. While the actual occurrences of abuse may be argued to be the crime of the individuals, the extensive cover-up was most definitely the crime of the organisation, and incontrovertible documented evidence went right to the top. Indeed, when the Catholic church tried to persuade women and girls made pregnant by priests to have abortions, they were further sacrificing their principles to dishonestly maintain the superficial appearance of having kept them. The evidence points to it having gone on not just for decades, but for centuries. It was only because of sociological changes that people no longer had unquestioning faith in the integrity of their priests’ behaviour that the evidence of the scale of crimes began to emerge. When public awareness of this reached a tipping point, the snowball started rolling.
I assert that a similar situation has built up with science, but as yet the tipping point has not been reached and the snowball has not started rolling uncontrollably down the hill: Because of some evident scientific advances and from the beginning there was a lack of easy access in many cases to primary data in most instances, until recently there has been largely unquestioning faith in someone with the title ‘scientist’, with assumptions of integrity and logical robustness of thought process. This has led to a consequent faith in the actually-rather-nebulous notion of ‘scientific consensus’.
The emergent pharmaceutical superpowers, whose marketing budgets exceed the GDP of small countries, have taken advantage of this largely unquestioning faith in science, and especially medical science, by in turn heavily influencing the apparent medical consensus on various topics. Science is supposedly a genuine search for advances in knowledge and resulting technology that benefits the human race. In recent years the manner in which medical science has been conducted has descended far from robust scientific principles and it seems to be increasingly enjoying the trappings of commercial industrial success while maintaining only a superficial appearance of being scientific. It has been corrupted by financial and ideological influences at so many stages in the chain that in some areas, such as HIV/AIDS, the message that reaches the public is almost unrecognisable from the actual truth. It’s like trying to shine a laser through very thick fog: It may start out as a solid beam of truth but the vested interests diverting the truth are so many that after a short distance the truth becomes hopelessly dispersed or diverted.
The whole thrust of Paul Nurse’s programme was gently chastising science for not promoting it’s official consensus view well enough. He would have served science better by taking a genuinely rigorous look at the serious and robust allegations of ideologically- or financially-motivated corruption purporting to be science. His own personal whitewashing of ‘climategate’ was itself somewhat transparently ideologically motivated and merely purporting to be an honest analysis. Paul Nurse’s patronising stance is that it’s the public perception of science and scientists that has become wayward, not the actual behaviour and claims of some areas of scientific endeavour. He fails to recognise that a public with increasing access to a wider variety of views and sources of information can now begin to ask more intelligent questions and examine evidence closer to the source for themselves. It is greater awareness of the serious flaws in the way science is sometimes done that is leading to greater distrust, not that the uneducated public has inappropriately wandered off the path of obsequious deference and unquestioning faith in the consensus of ‘experts’.
Sir Paul seems to have forgotten that in his election speech as speaker of the House of Commons after the MPs expenses scandal, MP John Bercow said, “We have left behind the age of deference, we need to arrive at the age of earned respect” – and if I may just emphasise the word ‘earned’ there. Some priests and their institutions abandoned their principles and abused the public they claimed to be both serving and leading through taking advantage of their congregations’ unquestioning respect. It’s about time that people who claim the professional title ‘scientist’ and those who lead supposedly scientific institutions realise they can no longer presume to have the automatic and unquestioning faith of a naïve public or continue to get away with such flagrant breaches of scientific principles without repercussions.
Sir Paul Nurse’s apparent awe in the presence of original copies of works by Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin among the presence of other genuinely towering figures from the humble beginnings of the Royal Society spoke volumes. It is as if his awe of the historical scientific establishment means that now he has joined it himself – Nobel Laureate, knighthood, president of the Royal Society – he believes that the scientific consensus itself must inherently be scientific, and his role is to defend its reputation. In other words, the Royal Society has chosen as it’s head someone who, despite his previous scientific credentials, has not taken on the role of ensuring that science is actually done scientifically, but is simply a PR person. While attempting to wear a cloak of humility apparently seeking honest answers it had become evident by the end of the programme that his supposedly open-minded investigation of ‘both sides’ of the climate debate was a thinly-disguised attempt to neutralise criticism of AGW theory. With respect to his interview of Tony Lance on HIV/AIDS it was a barely-disguised, “The evidence believed by the scientific consensus is overwhelming - how can this weirdo even think differently?”. To sum up I can hardly do better than to quote Sir Paul Nurse himself: “In all the clamour, the science seems to have been left behind…..What is really required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideology out of the way”.
Yes, but the public is becoming increasingly aware that too often it’s the scientists themselves who have become political, ideological, and left the science behind. And from the evidence of this programme, that includes the new president of The Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse himself. He has sacrificed his allegiance to scientific principles on the altar of maintaining the superficial prestige of the scientific establishment.