Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Mainstream propaganda by the BBC about denialism and global warming

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/11/05

A BBC documentary entitled “Science Under Attack” was broadcast in the UK on 24th January 2011. It is a superb piece of propaganda masquerading as a scientific documentary. Among other things, it seeks to quench any doubts that emissions of carbon dioxide are greatly speeding up global warming. A secondary aim seems to be to safeguard any and all pronouncements from the Scientific Establishment against criticism from outsiders.

Outside the UK, the program is not available from the BCC website, but on 1 April 2013 it was on YouTube for a short time before being purged for copyright reasons. An earlier YouTube posting had also been removed, as had the 7 sections of the program posted by TheChipsnbeer66.

“Science Under Attack” relied on two unstated presumptions, both of which are unsustainable: That a scientific consensus at any given moment should be taken as correct, and that computer models can accurately make predictions about something as complex as climate.

I call the program superb because it masks its propaganda so subtly:

First through being narrated by Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, a disarmingly amiable man who recounts how he has enjoyed thoroughly his lifelong work in science, along conventional lines but ably enough to bring a Nobel Prize. There is no trace of haughty arrogance in Nurse. When he says, ”Call me Paul”, it is obviously meant wholeheartedly, it is a straightforward, genuine and unassuming meeting card as he begins conversations with people who question the conventional view on global warming, HIV/AIDS, or the safety of genetically modified plants and foods. Even as I find the program deviously misleading, I continue to find Nurse wholly likable. Many likable people are wrong about all sorts of things, and many scientists are wrong about the reliability of contemporary scientific consensuses.

Second, “Science Under Attack” implies evenhandedness by allowing questioners to appear and to be treated in courteous, friendly fashion by Nurse.

Third, the very title of the program already makes its case subliminally. Surely science must actually be under attack if a program is devoted to the matter? Details might be arguable, say, the reasons why it is under attack, but surely the title couldn’t be entirely misleading, could it?
But of course it is. “Science” is not under attack by anyone. It’s just that in quite a number of fields, those in power are suppressing the views of competent peers. It is unwarranted mainstream dogmas that are under attack by a minority of largely ignored experts and informed observers [1].

Fourth, a vast range of relevant stuff is ignored. Perhaps the most important — and the least understood — is that whenever the significance of science outside its own domain is concerned, namely, the consideration of potential applications of scientific knowledge, and in particular any applications that impinge on public policies, scientists (very much including Nobelists like Nurse) are not the experts. Indeed, they are rarely knowledgeable at all. Most relevant here is that the history of science is a continuing story of mainstream consensus being found wrong and needing to be replaced. But most scientists — and many others too — still believe that scientists use a scientific method that automatically produces trustworthy results; they are not only lamentably ignorant but often downright misinformed about the history of science, the philosophy and sociology of science, the psychology of scientists. Scientists qua scientists are not reliable advisors on matters of public policy [2].

An important specific omission comes early in the BBC program, when Nurse cites a letter published in Science in which 250 climate scientists deplore the manner in which they are accused, in intemperate language, of fudging their data. Those cry-babies have nothing to complain of by comparison with how they themselves treat their own peers who happen to take a different view, as when Bjørn Lomborg — who doesn’t even question human-caused global warming, only the purported efficacy of Kyoto-type ameliorations — was compared to a Holocaust denier in a book review published in Nature (414 [2001] 149-50). Dissenters from the consensus are denied research funds, publication in leading journals, inclusion in conferences [1]. The cry-babies had their letter published in Science, but letters from those who dissent from a mainstream consensus and protest the lack of attention to the actual evidence are routinely refused publication in Science and Nature and the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine [3].

The program misleads by stating that the so-called attack on science comes from the lay public, vested ideological interests, and hapless media. In point of fact it is well qualified experts, insiders of the scientific specialty, who question the consensus [4]. Excluded from and shunned by their own professional forums, they can only turn to the public and the media in attempting to get some sort of hearing for their case.

The first flawed presumption on which the BBC program rests — unspoken but clearly entailed implicitly — is that a scientific consensus should always be accepted. This is absurd on its face, especially in conjunction with the program’s soothing assertion that the computer models of global climate are being improved all the time. This amounts to an intellectual oxymoron: If improvement is needed, obviously one shouldn’t have believed earlier claims or, by easy extension, what is now claimed. There is no guarantee that the next “improvement” will not upset the whole apple cart. To give just a couple of actual examples: It had been found that the model was diametrically wrong about the influence of clouds; and it was discovered belatedly that living plants emit significant amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane.
As Michael Crichton pointed out in a splendid essay [5], the same experts whose computer models cannot predict weather with any reliability more than a few days ahead are asking that their computer models be trusted to tell us what’s coming 50 and 100 years from now. Global temperatures have cycled over a range of about 5ºC several times during the last million years. Until the computer models can simulate that record, which they presently cannot, there is no reason to pay any attention to what they predict about the future.
I suggest that when you hear “scientific consensus”, you should immediately reach for your common sense and your history of science. Moreover, many climate scientists and meteorologists are on record as disagreeing with the so-called consensus about climate change.

Crichton is also good about the second flawed presumption. Computer models can never be better than the assumptions and data fed into them. The only way to test them is to compare them with reality. No comparison based on current or past circumstances can ever validate a model for the purpose of making predictions, because the model was constructed through knowledge of those past and present circumstances, and the future might be different in some significant, unsuspected, unforeseeable way. In “Science Under Attack”, Sir Paul expresses admiration for a demonstration at NASA of how similar are the actual circumstances and those calculated by the computer; but of course the computer’s calculations reflect accurately what is happening at the present time, because that’s the knowledge that was programmed into it. Tomorrow may be another day entirely.
The NASA scientist admits that Nature itself, rebounding from the last ice age, is causing some of the warming, but asserts that the present rate of warming is greater than anything in the past. That cannot be known. Past temperatures have fluctuated mightily: over a range of about 15ºC several times during the billions of years of the Earth’s existence, over a range of about 5-6ºC seven or eight times during the last million years, but the data from those past episodes are not fine-grained enough to reveal all the fluctuations over periods as short as a century or so. We simply do not know how rapidly the global temperature rose or fell within any given century 100,000 or a million years ago. Furthermore, assessing changes — let alone rapidity of changes — of a continually fluctuating up-and-down temperature means choosing starting and ending points for calculating the change: start at the trough before a warming period and end at an apex, and the change looks large; start at a rising midpoint and end at a falling midpoint and the “change” will be negligible. The NASA man’s assertion that warming is faster now cannot be known to be true, which makes it in effect a lie, albeit perhaps an unwitting one. A very detailed analysis of Earth’s many temperature cycles, with periodicities ranging from hundreds of years to hundreds of thousands of years, can be found in David Dilley’s “Natural Climate Pulse” [6].

Sir Paul Nurse helps create superb propaganda not only because he is so affable and sincere but also because he symbolizes centuries of scientific achievement, emphasized several times in the program as he visits the Royal Society’s archives and touches volumes by Darwin and Newton. Those lauded scientists were right, therefore we scientists are right now, is the obvious message. There is no mention of Bernard Barber’s long list of now-revered scientists, household names like Einstein (relativity) and Faraday (electrochemistry) and Lister (antisepsis) and Planck (quantum theory) who were fiercely resisted by their contemporary consensus [7]; nor did Newton’s or Darwin’s works receive immediate acclamation from their contemporary peers.
George Bernard Shaw’s insights might well be recalled, that progress depends on “unreasonable” individuals, and that all professions are conspiracies against the laity. Science has been a profession for more than a century now.

The program’s simulation of evenhandedness is entirely misleading. Fred Singer is allowed to make only a single point, that there’s a strong correlation between the solar wind and Earth temperatures. Commenting later on that conversation, Sir Paul points out that one must take into account all the evidence, not just a single factor, implying that this is what Singer does. In reality, Singer in his many publications takes into account every known factor no less than do the orthodox climate scientists, and some might say he considers all the data better than the orthodoxy does. A documentary that made Singer’s case could be just as convincing as this one is, yet in the opposite direction, if 95% of the program expounded Singer’s views of “all” the evidence and if, “in fairness”, one exponent of the orthodox view were allowed to make only a single point.

Similarly, Sir Paul talks with Tony Lance and allows him to mention that he has been “HIV-positive” for 13 years and entirely healthy and that he saw many friends dying after taking AZT. Later Sir Paul confesses that he doesn’t understand Lance’s thinking. Of course he doesn’t, he didn’t spent the requisite time learning about all the mainstream literature Lance has accumulated that supports his interpretation. Were Sir Paul to attempt to convey his own thinking to someone else in the space of a short conversation, that other person could well remain unable to understand Sir Paul’s thinking.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Sir Paul Nurse is a biologist. On the matter of global warming, he takes on trust the purveyors of the orthodox view. This is standard practice within science: specialists in one field trust what they hear from specialists in other fields. But one can reasonably ask, why does Nurse trust the Establishment specialists rather than the at-least-equally qualified and eminent Fred Singer and the thousands of other well qualified specialists who maintain that human-caused global warming has not been proved?
A partial answer to that may be found in “The New World Order in Science”: Conflicts of interest within science and vested interests from outside science have distorted “the search for truth” to the degree that a contemporary “scientific consensus” reflects power and not truth.

“Science Under Attack”, then, is thoroughly wrongheaded and misleading, about matters large — the nature of science, the significance of a scientific consensus, the role of computer models — and about matters smaller, the specific evidence for and against human-caused global warming, HIV-caused AIDS, and the dangers of genetically modifying organisms. It is superbly convincing through the devices I’ve described. It is propaganda pure and simple, at its best — which means at its moral worst.
It would therefore be gratifying to wax furious at Sir Paul Nurse and the writers and producers of this program for their devilish ingenuity in manufacturing such a fine piece of propaganda. But the reality is even worse. We should never attribute to deliberate malice what can be explained by incompetence or ignorance, because incompetence and ignorance are really so much more common than deliberate malice [8]. In more than one place, Sir Paul asserts that science is always trying to test its theories to self-destruction, always looking to all the evidence, always empirical and open-minded. It’s clear that he genuinely believes those things, not understanding that they are ideals and that scientists fall far short of practicing those ideals, individually to some extent but chiefly collectively, because science nowadays is a collection and a hierarchy of interlocking institutions that make it enormously difficult to change any established consensus [1].

This BBC program was produced by perfectly well-intentioned true believers, whose ignorance is vast and quite unsuspected by them. They don’t know that they are cultish followers of the ideology of scientism, and they would be disbelieving, shocked, offended were that pointed out to them.

It is always worth recalling that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions.

————————————————————-
[1] Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland 2012.
[2] Authoritative discussions of this point by a well-informed writer on science and politics can be found in Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (2001) and Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism (2007), both by Daniel S. Greenberg, University of Chicago Press. As to the so-called scientific method, see Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
[3] See “Suppression of Science Within Science”.
[4] See for instance the Science and Environmental Policy Project,  established by the distinguished scientist Fred Singer. See also my summary of why human-caused global warming should be treated with the greatest skepticism: “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”.
[5] Michael Crichton, “Aliens cause global warming (Caltech Michelin Lecture)”, 17 January 2003.
[6] The book can be downloaded from Dilley’s website  under “Climate Cycles” and then “Climate Pulse E-Book”. I couldn’t make the links work, so Google “David Dilley Climate” and go from there.
[7] Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery.” Science, 134 (1961) 596-602.
[8] I believe that I first saw this expressed as one of Murphy’s Laws, which contain a huge amount of practical wisdom: Arthur Bloch, Murphy’s Law and other reasons why things go wrong; Murphy’s Law Book Two — more reasons why things go wrong; Murphy’s Law Book FourThree — wrong reasons why things go more (Price/Stern/Sloan, 1980-1982).

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2 Responses to “Mainstream propaganda by the BBC about denialism and global warming”

  1. You might find some complementary points made in my article about the programme at the time it was aired – http://emergentwisdom.com/index.php/other-musings/37-science/50-sir-paul-nurse-abandons-scientific-principles-on-becoming-president-of-royal-society

    • Henry Bauer said

      Mike Hersee:

      Many thanks indeed for that link to your excellent piece about the BBC program. I encourage everyone to go there; and to note that Mike runs the very informative Heal-London website that’s on my Blogroll.

      I’d like to underscore the point about science becoming less trustworthy but not yet at the tipping point. It may be getting closer: The Economist quite recently (19 October 2013) discussed at some length in an editorial and an article some of what’s gone wrong with science. My own take on how and why modern science became unreliable is in “From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science”.

      As to whether Nurse was really deluded or else misleading deliberately: I suspect it’s more complicated — and therefore much harder to deal with. My present guess is that Nurse is pretty much what he seems to be: an enthusiastically dedicated scientist who happened to hit it big in his research and never had occasion to question the popular naive shibboleths about science (reliable scientific method, self-correcting, etc.). Never read much if any scholarship in history, sociology, philosophy of science. Like most of us, judges others by himself and therefore can’t believe the data-fiddling and general dishonesty as well as incompetence of so much orthodox “climate science”.

      As to the program, I’m not sure how much of it will have been designed by Nurse himself rather than by writers hired by the producers who conceived the notion to use a prominent scientist as narrator. And Nurse will have trusted them, just as he trusts the mainstream “climate scientists”, because he thinks other people are as honest as Nurse himself appears to be. He comes across so charmingly in the program, he would have to be an incredibly great actor if he was playing a selfconsciously and deliberately misleading role.

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