Seeking the truth must come before moral domination

Seeking the truth must come before moral domination

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 30, October, 2017

LAST WEEK, I wrote about the apparent lack of balance in the present EU review of the ubiquitous weedkiller, glyphosate (Double standards in safety assessments). On one hand, MEPs showed themselves only too willing to be swayed by what they perceive as public opinion (in reality, essentially the active anti-pesticide lobby and public inability to understand that the dose makes the poison) while simply ignoring the expert opinion of independent scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemical Agency that use of glyphosate is safe.

At the same time, the fact that the ‘evidence’ on which the campaign for a ban has been based – a single desk study for the International Agency for Research on Cancer – has been shown to be both dubious and championed by at least one scientist with demonstrable conflicts of interest, has been quietly ignored. Reuters saw successive drafts of the study from which positive statements on safety had been systematically removed in a totally untransparent way. While they reported the story fully, most mainstream news media simply ignored it.

This includes the BBC, perhaps because of an unconscious (?) bias against pesticides. But this same institution, while ignoring this blatant piece of anti-science policymaking, has chosen this week to castigate itself for not holding Lord Lawson to task for making a minor factual error when interviewed recently on the thorny topic of climate change (BBC wrong not to challenge climate sceptic Lord Lawson). The Beeb, having had complaints from listeners which it had at first rejected, now admits that it breached its ‘guidelines on accuracy and impartiality’.

The sole crime of the interviewer on the Today programme was not to immediately challenge Lord Lawson’s statement that "official figures showed that during this past 10 years, if anything…average world temperature has slightly declined". Peter Stott of the Met Office was interviewed the following day to refute this, and the Global Warming Policy Foundation (whom Lawson had been representing) also confirmed that the statement was incorrect.

End of story, you might think; interviewee gets facts slightly wrong, later corrected, interviewer doesn’t pick up on it at the time, and everyone gets on with their lives. Meanwhile, Al Gore was also interviewed and made some fairly strong statements about the benefits of renewable energy and the supposed increasing incidence of extreme weather events. He claimed that, in the ten years since his first film on the topic – An Inconvenient Truth – "climate-related extreme weather events have grown far more numerous and far more destructive" and that researchers were "virtually unanimous on this and have been for decades".

Arguably, these statements were as inaccurate as Lord Lawson’s, but there was no hint of complaint. The old chestnut of 97 per cent of scientists apparently agreeing that climate change is man-made was wheeled out in support of the position taken. That’s because climate change has become a moral issue – even a theological one – rather than a scientific one. For a flavour of this, we only need read the Guardian’s take on the story (BBC apologises over interviewer with climate denier Lord Lawson). The term ‘climate denier’, meaningless in itself, is an alert that the person in question is beyond the pale and should not be given airtime.

To quote from the piece “’I really thought the climate change debate had finished and that these voices of the very rich and well connected had lost relevance in the whole argument,’ said Dr Tim Thornton, a recently retired GP from Yorkshire who made one of the complaints. ‘It’s fine that they don’t like the idea of climate change but they are on a par with flat-earthers.’”

This was also accompanied by comments from Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change: “As well as taking account of the rights of marginal voices like Lord Lawson to be heard, the BBC should also take account of the harm that its audiences can experience from the broadcast of inaccurate information. His inaccurate assertion that there has been no change in extreme weather was harmful to the programme’s listeners because they may have been misled into believing that they do not need to take precautions against the increasing risk of heatwaves and flooding from heavy rainfall in the UK.” It’s amazing what conclusions we can draw when we use our imagination.

The clear message from the Establishment is that such people are neither to be trusted nor listened to. I suspect this is at least partly because things are not nearly as black and white as we are told and that the people insulted as ‘deniers’ might be thought to be speaking a degree of common sense and, indeed, be considered as potentially helpful critics in many other areas. Climate science is continuing to evolve, with a growing acceptance that the temperature rise associated with a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide level is likely to be considerably lower than those pronounced as almost certain just a few years ago. What hasn’t changed is the rhetoric on fighting climate change and saving the planet.

Motives are doubtless pure and intentions good, but trying to blackmail Western societies into using inadequate renewable energy technologies to slash fossil fuel use is very unlikely to achieve the stated goal of reducing average temperature rises to a ‘safe’ level. But in the current climate, it is almost impossible to argue that we need to develop a better strategy and better technology to make a real difference to emissions while keeping societies functioning smoothly. This is the very antithesis of a scientific approach, but most scientists themselves seem blind to the irony.

This insistence on the importance of the motives and means of achieving the goals is a bit like the prevailing view that Communism is somehow preferable to Fascism because its intentions were good, despite the fact that Marxist governments have been responsible for many more deaths than Nazi ones.  But science is not about taking moral positions. It is about seeking the truth through gathering and weighing of evidence and so identifying the most promising course of action. Those of us who believe in this may find few people to listen at present, but we shouldn’t give up.

Martin Livermore writes for the Scientific Alliance, which advocates the use of rational scientific knowledge in the development of public policy. To subscribe to his regular newsletter please use this link.

Photo of Lord Lawson by Andrew Crowley for Daily Telegraph.

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