Scientific consensus: the starting point of debate
A science writer argues that discussions of the political and economic options on climate change must be informed by the best scientific knowledge.
Martin Durkin’s Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle has been extensively written about since its broadcast on 8 March. Whether it was the letter sent to the Observer by eminent scientists, articles about Professor Carl Wunsch’s accusation of being duped into taking part, or criticisms by respected science journalists such as Mark Henderson (The Times), Steve Connor (the Independent) and Robin McKie (the Observer), the majority view from those who knew what they were talking about was that the documentary contained poor science, inaccuracies, distortions and half-truths.
With so much negative comment, it was therefore surprising to read Brendan O’Neill’s ridiculously sympathetic interview with Durkin, published on spiked on 9 March, which made absolutely no reference to the documentary’s flawed science.
O’Neill’s early paragraphs briefly describe some of the science in the documentary and then include lines such as ‘Durkin has directed a 90-minute made-for-TV movie that basically says: “Everything you know about global warming is wrong!”’, and ‘there’s no denying that the film poked some very big holes in the global warming consensus’. O’Neill does state that he finds Durkin’s alternative hypothesis for global warming, namely that it’s due to the sun and cosmic rays, ‘a little unconvincing’, but he fails to offer any hint that the basic science in the documentary is deeply flawed in many, many ways.
For example, Durkin’s documentary argued that the fall in global temperatures during the mid-twentieth century is incompatible with the hypothesis that global warming is caused by industrial carbon emissions. In fact, there is no inconsistency, because industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants during this same period reflected sunlight and had a greater cooling effect than the warming carbon emissions. Mainstream science explains how the reduction of sulphate pollutants in recent decades, coupled with increased carbon emissions, has resulted in unfettered global warming, so everything makes sense.
Unfortunately, Durkin was either not informed enough or honest enough to tell us the full story. His flawed argument was backed up by a graph that Durkin himself now admits contained ‘a fluff’. I could go on about the other awful science errors in the documentary, but you can find out more about what Durkin got wrong by reading Steve Connor’s article in the Independent or George Monbiot’s rebuttal in the Guardian. I realise that Monbiot and some spiked readers may not necessarily be the best of friends, but he gets the science right in his recent Guardian article.
Leaving the details of the flaws aside, how can O’Neill write such a positive article about Durkin’s work? It was written immediately after the programme was transmitted, so he might claim that he was unaware of the flaws that have been highlighted over the last week. However, some basic research would have found articles such as the one in the Observer that appeared prior to the broadcast, which warned of errors in the programme. It was written by the paper’s science editor Robin McKie, so it was worth taking seriously.
For an editor of an online publication that prides itself on rigorous criticism, O’Neill seems to have gone very soft on Durkin, almost gooey-eyed. For example, when the ITC (now Ofcom) ordered Channel 4 to issue an on-screen apology over how Durkin edited interviewees in an earlier documentary, Against Nature, Durkin dismisses it as the authorities buckling under pressure from environmentalists. O’Neill seems happy to accept that this was the case, but what is the evidence? The more straightforward explanation for the ITC judgement is that Durkin did indeed treat his contributors unfairly. Interestingly, the most widely respected scientist to appear in The Great Global Warming Swindle is now claiming that he was similarly deceived and misrepresented.
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O’Neill makes lots of other bizarre comments in his homage to the maverick Durkin, such as the idea that journalists are not interested in ‘dissenting views’. If anything, the problem is that journalists love controversy and seek it out even if it is unjustified. He also implies that the people interviewed by Durkin do not otherwise find a place in the mainstream media, but Nigel Calder has been on national radio and TV (including Newsnight) promoting his recent book, and the likes of Piers Corbyn and Nigel Lawson are telly regulars. If anything, the climate sceptics receive a disproportionate amount of airtime based on the quantity and quality of their research.
When I chatted to O’Neill about his article, his response was that he was really interested in the ‘narrow horizons’ of the politics of global warming, especially in relation to development. That is an interesting area to explore, but the article was based on Durkin’s documentary, which was primarily about the science, which was presented in a profoundly misleading manner.
Any discussion about political and economic options in relation to climate change must be informed by the best available scientific knowledge, and O’Neill seemed to ignore that Durkin’s documentary was based on outdated, inaccurate or incomplete scientific knowledge.
At this point, it is perhaps worth noting that I have never belonged to an environmental lobby group. In fact, I am broadly sympathetic towards GM farming and broadly negative about organic food. As an aside, I am wholly positive about the MMR vaccine. In each case, my views have emerged from the scientific consensus surrounding each issue. Similarly, I am prepared to accept that human carbon emissions are driving climate change, because of the firm scientific consensus based on the best available evidence. In short, the scientific consensus is a good place to start a debate, as opposed to having a discussion based on dodgy premises.
I should also stress that I am not in favour of closing down debate on any issue. Everything should be up for debate, including global warming. But anybody who argues against global warming needs to be honest, informed, credible and armed with decent data. And even if we accept manmade global warming as a reality, then there are still plenty of interesting and challenging questions about the rate of warming, its local impacts, how it could be combated and so on.
With so much that does need to be discussed, it is hugely annoying that Durkin tries to confuse the issue with a disreputable documentary. It is doubly annoying that Channel 4 has backed the documentary in the name of supporting balance and minority views – balance does not mean presenting bad science and minority views should not include those that are outdated or unjustified. Finally, it is triply annoying that spiked passively accepts this nonsense documentary and puts its creator on a pedestal.
Simon Singh is a science writer and broadcaster. Visit his website here. Read Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Martin Durkin here.