Friday, October 06, 2006

When it’s time to speak out

[The following is the unedited form of my latest article on The newsblog on this story is worth checking out too.]

By confronting ExxonMobil, the Royal Society is not being a censor of science but an advocate for it.

When Bob Ward, former manager of policy communication at the Royal Society in London, wrote a letter to the oil company ExxonMobil taking it to task for funding groups that deny the human role in global warning, it isn’t clear he knew quite what he was letting himself in for. But with hindsight the result was predictable: once the letter was obtained and published by the British Guardian newspaper, the Royal Society (RS) was denounced from all quarters as having overstepped its role as impartial custodians of science.

Inevitably, Ward’s letter fuels the claims of ‘climate sceptics’ that the scientific community is seeking to impose a consensus and to suppress dissent. But the RS has been denounced by less partisan voices too. David Whitehouse, formerly a science reporter for the BBC, argues that “you tackle bad science with good science”, rather than trying to turn off the money to your opponents. “Is it appropriate”, says Whitehouse, “that [the RS] should be using its authority to judge and censor in this way?”

And Roger Pielke Jr, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, who is a controversialist but far from a climate sceptic, says that “the actions by the Royal Society are inconsistent with the open and free exchange of ideas, as well as the democratic notion of free speech.”

Yes, there is nothing like the scent of scientific censorship to make scientists of all persuasions come over all sanctimonious about free speech.

The problem is that these critics do not seem to understand what the RS (or rather, Bob Ward) actually said, nor the context in which he said it, nor what the RS now stands for.

Ward wrote his letter to Nick Thomas, Director of Corporate Affairs at ExxonMobil’s UK branch Esso. He expressed surprise and disappointment at the way that ExxonMobil’s 2005 Corporate Citizenship Report claimed that the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that recent global warming has a human cause “rely on expert judgement rather than objective, reproducible statistical methods”. Ward’s suggestion that this claim is “inaccurate” is in fact far too polite.

Model uncertainties and natural variability, the report goes on to claim, “make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions.” But anyone who has followed the course of the scientific debate over the past two decades will know how determinedly the scientists have refrained from pointing the finger at human activities until the evidence allows no reasonable alternative.

Most serious scientists will agree on this much, at least. The crux of the argument, however, is Ward’s alleged insistence that ExxonMobil stop funding climate-change deniers. (He estimates that ExxonMobil provided $2.9 million last year to US organizations “which misinformed the public about climate change.”) Actually, Ward makes no such demand. He points out that he expressed concerns about the company’s support for such lobby groups in a previous meeting with Thomas, who told him that the company intended to stop it. Ward asked in his letter when ExxonMobil plans to make that change.

So there is no demand here, merely a request for information about an action ExxonMobil had said it planned to undertake. Whitehouse and Pielke are simply wrong in what they allege. But was the RS wrong to intervene at all?

First, anyone who is surprised simply hasn’t being paying attention. Under outspoken presidents such as Robert May and Martin Rees, the Royal Society is no longer the remote, patrician and blandly noncommittal body of yore. It means business. In his 2005 Anniversary Address, May criticized “the campaigns waged by those whose belief systems or commercial interests impel them to deny, or even misrepresent, the scientific facts”.

“We must of course recognise there is always a case for hearing alternative, even maverick, views”, he added. “But we need to give sensible calibration to them. The intention of ‘balance’ is admittedly admirable, but this problem of wildly disparate ‘sides’ being presented as if they were two evenly balanced sporting teams is endemic to radio, TV, print media, and even occasional Parliamentary Select Committees.”

In response to his critics, Ward has said that “the Society has spoken out frequently, on many issues and throughout its history, when the scientific evidence is being ignored or misrepresented”. If anything, it hasn’t done that often enough.

Second, Ward rightly ridicules the notion of ExxonMobil as the frail David to the Royal Society’s Goliath. The accusations of “bullying” here are just risible. The RS is no imperious monarch, but a cash-strapped aristocrat who lives in the crumbling family pile and contrives elegantly to hide his impecuniosity. In contrast, the climate sceptics count among their number the most powerful man in the world, who has succeeded in emasculating the only international emissions treaty we have.

And it’s not just the oil industry (and its political allies) that the RS faces. The media are dominated by scientific illiterates like Neil Collins, who writes in the Telegraph newspaper à propos this little spat of his “instinctive leaning towards individuals on the fringe”, that being the habitual raffish pose of the literati. (My instinctive leaning, in contrast, is towards individuals who I think are right.) “Sea level does not appear to be rising”, says Collins (wrong), while “the livelihoods of thousands of scientists depend on our being sufficiently spooked to keep funding the research” (don’t even get me started on this recurrent idiocy). I fear the scientific community does not appreciate the real dangers posed by this kind of expensively educated posturing from high places.

If not, it ought to. In the early 1990s, the then editor of the Sunday Times Andrew Neil supported a campaign by his reporter Neville Hodgkinson suggesting that HIV does not cause AIDS.

Like most climate sceptics, Neil and the HIV-deniers did not truly care about having a scientific debate – their agenda was different. To them, the awful thing about the HIV theory was that it placed every sexual libertine at risk. How dare science threaten to spoil our fun? Far better to confine the danger to homosexuals: Hodgkinson implied that AIDS might somehow be the result of gay sex. For a time, the Sunday Times campaign did real damage to AIDS prevention in Africa. But now it is forgotten and the sceptics discredited, while Neil has gone from strength to strength as a media star.

On that occasion, Nature invited accusations of scientific censorship by standing up to the Sunday Times’s programme of misinformation – making me proud to be working for the journal. As I recall, the RS remained aloof from that matter (though May mentions it in his 2005 speech). We should be glad that it is now apparently ready to enter the fray. Challenging powerful groups that distort science for personal, political or commercial reasons is not censorship, it is being an advocate for science in the real world.


Philip Thrift said...

Very nice article, and I live just a few miles from ExxonMobil world headquarters!

I was interested in comparing the 'climate skeptics' and the 'evolution skeptics' in terms of the language they use in one of my posts: Conspiracy theory reflex

Maxine Clarke said...

Glad you were proud to be working for Nature at that (AIDS) time, Phil. So was I.

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