Ben Pile: The GWPF, Crok & Lewis, And Positioning Sceptics

  • Date: 09/03/14
  • Ben Pile, Climate Resistance

As we all now know, Marcel Crok and Nicholas Lewis have written a report on the IPCC’s treatment of climate sensitivity, published by the GWPF. The GWPF’s press release is here, the long version of the report is here, and the short version is here.

Andrew Orlowski has a nice piece on the report comprising a Q&A with Lewis at the Register.

The nuts and bolts of the science have never been of interest to this blog — that is for other blogs. But what is interesting about challenges to putative mainstream climate science is the responses that they generate. The scientific controversy isn’t generally very interesting, except to those who already take a particular interest in climate science’s debates. What this blog argues is that the treatment of scientific debates often reveal much more about the prevailing politics — the context of the climate debate — than a narrow treatment of scientific questions can reveal. [...]

What does the response to the Lewis & Crok report tell us about the politics of today’s climate debate?

There were some rapid replies from science. Notably, Piers Foster at Ed Hawkins’ Climate Lab Book, set out his own analysis of the Lewis & Crok paper, without — as far as I can tell — any obvious ideological baggage, though some sceptics pointed out that the reply was obfuscation, rather than a serious rejoinder. The consensus police arrived, as they are inclined to, to manage the situation in the way only they know how.

The Science Media Centre soon followed with an attempt at ‘expert reaction to new report on climate sensitivity published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation‘. The SMC’s approach to climate is less about getting clear scientific advice to the public debate than it is about getting rehearsed soundbytes from scientists into the press as quickly as possible. This is PR. And so it is no surprise that Bob Ward (him again!) sits on the organisation’s advisory committee. Readers of Bishop Hill blog will already know that Chief Executive of the SMC, Fiona Fox, is chairing a ‘debate’ about the question ‘Are there really two sides to every science story?‘ later this month, apparently in the wake of Lord Lawson’s appearance on Radio 4′s Today programme opposite Hoskins, which caused so much ire. Notably, the panellists do not include anyone from the side which might claim there is more than one story to the climate debate. It is populated, however, by Bob Ward (him again), and Steve Jones,whose views on sceptics on the BBC is not so different, as reported here, back in 2011.

Says Fox:

“I think many now agree that the hallowed principle of ‘journalistic balance’ is problematic when it comes to science and no one has made that point more than me. But I also think we have to be careful about where lines are drawn. Reporting climate change or GM crops as if there is a 50/50 split in science is misleading, inaccurate and poor journalism. But that does not mean that media debates about these controversies should be monopolised by scientists to the exclusion of other voices. I have agreed to chair this debate because I genuinely sit somewhere in the middle and think this panel guarantees a thoughtful, grown up discussion between speakers who care passionately about getting this right.”

Fox’s claim that she sits ‘somewhere in the middle’ is unconvincing. Notice that the SMC did not canvass anyone who welcomed the report, whether they agreed with it or not, as a contribution to the debate. Instead, the SMC’s correspondents belittled it. The SMC trades on the view that ‘science’ produces single answers to simple questions, whereas in reality, science — especially climate science — is a messy process, which investigates poorly understood, and even less clearly defined problems. (If it were otherwise, there would be no need for science). Being ‘half way’ on the question about the appropriate balance of opinion (yes, opinion) in the media is not ‘half way’ between censorship and editorial freedom. The idea that one can be half way on such a question is almost as absurd as the idea that Bob Ward can contribute to a ‘a thoughtful, grown up discussion’, much less guarantee one.

The SMC has not challenged Ward’s particular form of emphasis on the science — and it couldn’t. And it has not challenged the nonsense emerging from environmental psychology, such as that coming from Cardiff University (about which more follows) and Stephan Lewandowsky. It has not challenged the tone or the content of the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers’ comments on climate change, nor the Royal Society’s presidents, even where they have been entirely unscientific. And it couldn’t. What use is science to society, if its advocates are not brave enough to point out the nonsense that is produced in the name of the scientific consensus?

Ward now represents an extreme position in the climate debate, which, it seems clear, organisations and individuals will want to move away from in the near future. But for now, the division that Ward wants to maintain between the orthodox position and its critics is sustained, not by clearly articulated scientific dispute, but by a single, entrenched — although perhaps unconscious — political perspective. It emerges under Foster’s attempt to define the scientific disagreement, and it is perpetuated by SMC’s attempt to control the narrative in the wider sphere. The SMC’s emphasis on ‘expert opinion’, reflects the ‘values’ recently evinced by Lewandowsky, that debate about the climate and criticism of his own work is valid only when ‘addressed through proper channels’ — it ‘should take place in the scientific literature’. Lewandowsky is a demonstration of the academy’s failure, and the SMC a demonstration of the need for climate scepticism, right or wrong.

Full essay