On climate change, science is not “impartial”

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(Photo credit: The Freedom Association)

Reading the history of mathematics and science and you will come across stories about the various cranks and obsessives who, lacking all training, claim they have solved the great problems or proved that the accepted solutions are false.

Even now there are those trying to show that Cantor’s diagonalisation argument is false, just as there were many who were said to have proved Fermat’s Last Theorem long before that was actually done. Others say that evolution is a lie or that Bishop Ussher was right and the Earth is just a few thousand years old.

Is it fair to place James Delingpole – a novelist and English Literature graduate – in the same camp as these cranks because he claims to have authority on global warming, able to gainsay the vast bulk of the scientists who study these matters and conduct scientific discourse through the institutions of the academy and the rigours of peer review?

Yes, is my view.

Delingpole’s latest foray into science is an attack on the BBC for not being “impartial” on the science of climate change. Here’s the thing, the science is not impartial. The fact that the scientific consensus does not fit with Delingpole’s world view does not mean that Delingpole’s world view has a right to an equal hearing, it does not.

To be fair to Delingpole, despite his explicit rejection of the institutions of science…

we should set too much store by the Appeal To Authority. If someone has his facts right on climate change, then he’s still right regardless of whether he’s a geneticist, a marine geologist, or the bastard offspring of Adolf Hitler.

…he seeks to back his claim for equal validity for “denial” by quoting a man who has had peer reviewed work published which broadly aligns with Delingpole’s worldview – Professor Robert Carter.

Carter, at least in the recent past, has also been paid a stipend by the notorious “Heartland Institute” and that doesn’t seem to be his only connection to them, as John Ashton recounts in his description of the BBC’s approach to the issue (the BBC subsequently admitted they’d got this wrong, which is what has irked Delingpole):

At breakfast time, Radio 4’s Today programme informed listeners that despite extensive efforts, the BBC had been unable to find a single British scientist willing to challenge the IPCC‘s findings. At that point the BBC might have concluded that the IPCC’s views represent an overwhelming consensus and left it at that.

Instead, BBC news editors evidently cast their net wider. By lunchtime World at One was introducing Prof Carter as an Australian geologist, speaking for the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change“, or NIPCC. Someone who is not a climate scientist, in other words, representing a Not-The-IPCC body. Indeed, it turns out that the NIPCC is backed by the Heartland Institute, a US-based free-market thinktank that opposes urgent action on climate change.

In a remarkable interview that dominated the entire World at One coverage, Carter poured scorn on the IPCC’s findings. He drew on his geological expertise to argue that there was no more point in trying to mitigate climate change than in trying to prevent earthquakes. He claimed that, unlike the intensively peer-reviewed findings of more than 800 IPCC researchers, the NIPCC’s work was truly independent, while cheerfully admitting that family foundations in America paid for it. He implied that it represented a widely held scholarly view, pointing to “around 47” scientific collaborators. He did not specify how many of these were climate scientists.

Reading this, the point seems to be that the BBC tried far too hard to find views that disagreed with the scientific consensus: they accepted Delingpole’s false claim that there is some form of “impartiality” when it comes to competing scientific explanations.

And presumably they did so because climate change science is politically controversial. But that controversy has nothing to do with the science.

Think of it this way … the evidence in support of the Higgs mechanism has been piling up of late. But not every scientist accepts the Standard Model which is built on top of the Higgs mechanism – and many can point to holes in the model that means that it is unlikely to be a complete explanation in any case, even as the experimental evidence mounts for its fundamental correctness.

But did the BBC respond to the award of the Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs by scouring the globe for an advocate of supersymmetry to rubbish the Higgs mechanism and the standard model? Of course they didn’t. They would not have dared because they are not qualified to make that judgement.

So why do they feel they can do otherwise with climate change? The circumstances are very similar – the evidence for the “standard model” here has been piling up, though few would dispute there is much we still don’t fully know or understand. There are some scientists who dispute the standard model but they are in a minority and they are visibly losing the argument as the experimental evidence piles up. That doesn’t make them bad scientists, but it is bad journalism to treat them as though their view is of equal weight with the advocates of the scientific consensus.

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