Ravetz responds – to my last post

Posted January 14th, 2013 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

Following is a response to my last post that I received from Jerry Ravetz this afternoon. He still hasn’t convinced me. I will respond before the end of the week. (Revised Jan 15, 6:45 am)

Letter from Jerry Ravetz:

I have written at great length on ‘climategate’ without convincing Sylvia of my case, or even of my rationality and integrity, so this time I will make only a few brief remarks.   I think that our deepest difference is in our perceptions of the opposed sides in the debate.  She sees a consensus of the established, high-quality scientific community on the one hand, with an assortment of cranks, prostitutes and self-deluders (as myself) on the other.  By contrast, I would argue that one important source of strength and conviction among the opposition has been the perception of bad practice among the mainstream.   For that a very important source is the autobiographical account by ‘Lucy Skywalker’, who describes how she was converted by Al Gore, and then painfully discovered ever more shoddy and tendentious science among the ‘alarmists’ (#1).   I had my own experience of that sort, when I heard an impassioned lecture by John Schellnhuber, detailing his ‘cascade of catastrophes’ as if they were sober predictions based on tested models.  Later I discovered that while not essentially implausible, his scenario was highly speculative.  Also, here in the UK many will recall the assurance by the Meteorological Office that by 2010 winter snow would be a fading memory.  This had direct consequences on policy, for local authorities then cut their budgets for coping with snow, and when severe winters occurred later in the decade, they were underfunded and unprepared.

Over here, again, the idea that leading mainstream scientists have been sober and cautious in their pronouncements is not borne out by experience.  Lord Robert May, in particular, has been a fervent advocate of the cause.  Roger Harrabin has a revealing comment about Bob May (#2) .  As to ‘climategate’ itself, the various commissions that exonerated the CRU scientists have not had a broad acceptance; the very critical words of New Scientist are significant (#3).  If Sylvia wants a sample of intemperate remarks, she could not do better than to read John Beddington’s lecture, where, referring to some unidentified opposition elements, recommends that we should be as ‘grossly intolerant’ of them as of as racialists and homophobes (#4).

I do recommend to Sylvia that she have a look at some of the critical blogs.  In particular I recommend Tallbloke’s Talkshop, where mainstream scientists are welcomed into the technical debate, and Judith Curry’s blog, where philosophical questions are discussed.  From my experience, the only thing that unites the ‘denialists’ is their denial that ‘the science is settled’.  Now that we have had some considerable time without continued warming, and the Met Office has referred to the ill-understood low-frequency effects that might be responsible, it would seem that Bob May was indeed premature in foreclosing further debate (#5).

Making sense of all this is a big job.  One could start with Angela Wilkinson’s description of CRU as ‘evangelical science’, an originally radical message that had its ‘Constantine moment’ around 1995.   Or one might recall that earlier socially responsible science, eugenics.  Just now I am thinking about Nutrition.  In one sense this should be a straightforward natural science.  People need food of the right sort and quantity; why shouldn’t science be able to advise them?  And of course in many ways it does.  But then at the fringes, and sometimes right at the core, there is not merely fashion and fads in the science, but also crankiness and corruption.  For how many decades was the scientific consensus focused on the evils of fat, while ignoring those of sugar?  Such a science is inevitably post-normal; sometimes I wonder whether it is actually ‘wicked’.  Given what we know about the difficulties of ‘climate’ as an object of scientific inquiry, elaborated by Mike Hulme (#6) the analogy would seem to be useful.

The question is then, what is a good person to do?  In pondering on that, I am pondering on the insights of existentialism, achieved in response to the contradictions and tragedies of left-wing politics.  Of course we have to choose our activist cause, but unless we do so with our eyes open we risk being destroyed, politically and ethically. Stalin destroyed Socialism as a noble endeavour, so it is not outlandish to suggest that Al Gore might have done the same to Environmentalism.  Zionism has come a long way from the kibbutzim to the settlers.  Even the U.S.A. ‘conceived in liberty’, enshrined the sub-humanity of Africans into its Constitution with the ‘three-fifths’ rule for the electorate in slave states.  Some would say that these betrayals and contradictions were inherent in the situation as it developed; for others, they could have been avoided.  We can never know who was right, and that includes ourselves.

I know that these issues are particularly difficult and painful in the U.S.A., where climate change has been involved in the vicious culture wars between ‘coastal’ and ‘middle’ America.  But even this is not new.  George Orwell could not find a left-wing publisher for his account of the tragedy of Catalunia.  They didn’t want to disrupt the anti-Fascist movement, and then Stalin did it for them shortly afterwards with the Pact of Molotov and Ribbentrop.  For me, the most important thing to remember is that when science leaves the lab (as in the climate change issue) it becomes political.  Its simplicity is gone, and it then shares all the complexity of politics.  This includes ‘night battles’ where friend and foe are confused, shifting alliances, savage internecine struggles, and sudden changes in the deeper significance of events, so that sincere and self-sacrificing activists are always at risk of being stranded.  When we understand all that, we will be able to cope, and also to retain our love and compassion for those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement.

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1.  “Lucy Skywalker”, Curious Anomalies in Climate Science, http://www.greenworldtrust.org.uk/Science/Curious.htm)

2. I remember Lord May leaning over and assuring me: “I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over.”

Lord May’s formidable intellect and the power of his personality may have made it hard for others to find a corner from which to dissent. “The debate is over” was a phrase used in order to persuade Tony Blair that policies were needed to tackle the rise in CO2.

Roger Harrabin, Harrabin’s Notes:  Getting the message, 29 May 2010 / BBC News – Science & Environment.

3. Some will argue it is time to leave climategate behind.  But it is difficult to justify the conclusion of Edward Acton, University of East Anglia vice-chancellor, that the CRU ‘has been completely exonerated’.  Openness in sharing data, even with your critics, is a legal requirement.

But what happened to intellectual candour – especially in conceding the shortcomings of these inquiries and discussing the way that science is done.  Without candour, public trust in climate science cannot be restored, nor should it be.

Editorial, New Scientist, 17 July 2010.

4.  Sir John Beddington, FRS, closing remarks to an annual conference of 300 scientific civil servants, 3 February 2011.

John Dwyer and Laura Hood, Beddington goes to war against bad science,

http://www.researchresearch.com/index.php?option=com_news&template=rr_2col&view=article&articleId=1032320

5. David Shukman, Climate model forecast is revised, BBC News, Science 7 Environment, 8 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20947224

6. Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Cambridge U.P. 2009.