Keep politics out of science – and vice versa

Whether it is right or wrong, true or junk, science should never be prostituted for political ends.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Since Channel 4 aired Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle on 8 March, in which various scientists questioned the scientific consensus that manmade carbon emissions are causing global warming, there has been an increasingly shrill spat between mainstream climate change scientists and an ever-dwindling number of climate change sceptics. ‘We are right and you are wrong’, say the mainstream scientists. ‘No, we are right and you are wrong’, claim the sceptics. Both sides have wheeled out graphs and pie charts to demonstrate their rightness and their opponents’ wrongness, giving rise to a war of words and stats and scientific facts that has no doubt helped to bamboozle great numbers of the Great British public.

For me, the infuriating thing about this debate is that it overlooks the main problem with the mainstream science on global warming. No, not that it is wrong, or that it is ‘swindling’ people, but rather that it has become deeply, almost irrevocably politicised. As a layperson largely following this debate via my laptop, I can see that a scientific consensus has been reached which says there has been some global warming, and most scientists believe that man’s carbon emissions are contributing to that warming. There is still a clear need for debate, it seems, over whether manmade CO2 alone is the cause of warming, how much warmer the planet is likely to get, and what the consequences will be. The problem, however, is that this scientific consensus is being used by the powers-that-be to justify all sorts of inhumane, illiberal and repressive political measures, often with the support, or at least complicity, of the scientists.

Even when the science is ‘right’, it is never right to prostitute science for political ends. History shows us that the mixing of science and values, the use and abuse of science to direct the political and social life of a society, is never a good idea. It is bad for politics, and it is bad for science.

spiked is all in favour of good and rigorous science. We have frequently challenged the petty and pernicious government restrictions on scientific endeavour, especially in relation to stem-cell research and animal experimentation. And we have ruthlessly challenged the panics around the genetic modification of crops and food, the bad science that informed the MMR-autism debacle of the past 10 years, and the lazy pseudo-medical science that says an ‘obesity epidemic’ means that the kids of today are unhealthier than earlier generations and will likely die before their parents (1). Some of those currently posing as defenders of scientific integrity in relation to global warming have not been so keen to defend science in these instances. Today, newspaper columnists such as George Monbiot at the Guardian and Geoffrey Lean at the Independent write long pieces attacking Durkin as a lone maverick undermining the scientific consensus. In the past, however, they bigged up lone mavericks who made scary and unsubstantiated claims about how GM foods might poison humans, increase the risk of miscarriage amongst women, and even cause cancer – all of which went against the sensible scientific consensus that GM is actually safe.

spiked has also consistently called for scientists to be given the independence and the resources they need in order to experiment, discover, improve our understanding of the natural world. That is how science works best: as a kind of pool of fascinating findings and ideas that progressive societies can draw inspiration from, in the name of developing medicine, technology and exploration. Science can inform open political debate, for example in areas of health, but it should not determine it.

Something very different – and dangerous – is happening with the science of global warming. Public figures are using the language of climate change science to force through a new political consensus. The scientific consensus around CO2 emissions and global warming is now used to justify reining in development, narrowing people’s ambitions, and policing our behaviour in an ever-more petty fashion. Elites don the garb of ‘scientific fact’ as a cover for their own loss of nerve and ambition, and as an argument for holding back the potential for further progress and development. From the demand for small-scale ‘sustainable development’ in Africa to new taxes designed to determine what kind of cars we Westerners drive and how many holidays we may take a year, politicians, activists and commentators increasingly marshal the men in white coats to show that we have no choice but to narrow our horizons because the science demands it.

In truth, there is no straight or logical line from the scientific finding that manmade CO2 is contributing to warming and the demand that we slow down development and change the way we live. Rather, such small-minded policies are a product of today’s politics of low expectations, which is dressed up in the language of science. In the past, humanity faced up to great challenges, whether they were thrown up by nature or by man’s own actions, by seeking to forge ahead and advance society, by applying the greatest minds to come up with solutions to our problems. Today we are told that the only legitimate response to predictions of global warming is to drive less, build less, develop less and generally do less in the here and now. George Monbiot confesses that one of his aims is to ‘make people so depressed about the state of the world that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuel’ (2). The science demands it, apparently.

Scandalously, over the past five to 10 years the science of climate change has been used as a political weapon, both to transform our behaviour and to silence those who dare to question today’s narrow political outlook. And some mainstream scientists, by allowing this to happen, have been far more complicit in the bastardisation of science than those small numbers of climate change sceptics with their allegedly dodgy graphs. While mainstream science writers attack Martin Durkin and the various talking heads in his film for muddying the science on global warming, they seem blind to the far graver undermining of scientific integrity represented by the relentless politicisation of climate change science.

Over the past two weeks, a handful of climate change scientists have instinctively kicked against the politicisation of their work. At a conference in Oxford, England last weekend, Professors Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier of the Royal Meteorological Society slated the ‘catastrophism’ of scientists who predict that climate change will cause floods, droughts, famines and other assorted horrors. ‘There is no evidence to show we’re all due for very short-term devastating impacts as a result of global warming’, said Professor Hardaker, warning that mixing ‘science with unscientific assumptions’ is a dangerous pastime (3).

Last week some very respectable scientists told the New York Times that some of the claims made by Al Gore in his film An Inconvenient Truth were exaggerated and erroneous. (Funnily enough, these scientists were not given anywhere near the same amount of airtime as those who claim to have been duped into appearing in Durkin’s documentary.) ‘I don’t want to pick on Al Gore’, said Don J Easterbrook, emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University. ‘But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.’ (4) In both Oxford and New York, serious scientists seem to be reacting against the use of science to tell a fearful and exaggerated tale about the fate awaiting humanity. In the words of Professor Hardaker, they seem uncomfortable with the mixing of ‘science’ (the data drawn up in labs and research units) and ‘unscientific assumptions’ (the notion that we are all doomed).

Also last week, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Hans von Storch, one of Germany’s leading researchers on climate change, attacked scientists for ‘doom-mongering’ over global warming. Von Storch compared the moral message that is attached to today’s climate change science with earlier religious and mythical stories about the Earth punishing humanity for its hubris. ‘The fear of climatic catastrophes is an ancient one’, he said. In reference to the tendency to single out flying holidaymakers in particular as the new ‘sinners’, von Stroch argued: ‘In the past, people believed that the climate almost always changes for the worse, and only rarely for the better – God’s punishment for sinful behaviour. And nowadays, it’s those hedonistic wastrels who pollute the air so that they can look at some pretty fish in the South Seas. It would be better if we only ever rode bikes. Oh, there’s always someone wagging a finger in disapproval.’ (5)

None of these scientists can be denounced as ‘climate change deniers’, the scurrilous tag normally attached to anybody who questions the consensus on global warming – all of them accept that manmade carbon emissions are contributing to the warming of the planet. Nor can they be written off as oily mouthpieces for ExxonMobil or some other fat conglomerate – they work/did work at respectable universities and institutions. Rather they are voicing their discomfort with certain scientists’ willingness to see their work used to tell stories of catastrophe and to shape people’s behaviour and expectations.

The real scandal in the debate about the science of global warming is not the airing of sceptical or dissenting or plain wrong views, but the exploitation of those who claim to be ‘right’ in order to push forward some pretty poisonous political campaigning. The subordination of science to politics has a horrendous historical track record. In Russia in the 1930s and 40s, the Stalinists championed the ‘agricultural science’ of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko in order to clamp down on research and advances in genetics, which they viewed as ‘bourgeois science’. That had a dire impact on the forward development of agriculture in Russia for more than 30 years. (Interestingly, Lysenko was celebrated in the slavish Soviet press as a natural, earth-loving ‘barefoot scientist’, a little bit like the Observer’s trendy green columnist the ‘barefoot doctor’, perhaps.) The Nazis, of course, used the science of eugenics to justify their racism and anti-Semitism.

The Stalinists’ and Nazis’ science may have been junk, whereas the consensus around manmade global warming is more respectable. Yet the marshalling of the science of global warming to bolster political campaigns today has echoes of the Nazis’ use of science to back up their poisonous politics of race and the Stalinists’ use of science to stifle research on genetics. Whether your science is right or wrong, respectable or racist, its prostitution for political ends is bad news – both for politics and for science.

It is bad for politics because it rigidifies debate. Great important questions about people’s lives and futures are reduced to findings made by scientists and plotted on a line graph. Decisions are taken less on the basis of human interest and need, and more on the basis of what scientists predict is possible and desirable. So today we have the quite shocking situation where the Third World is discussed in terms of how much the River Nile might rise by over the next 100 years, as ruminated over by scientists and experts, rather than in terms of what living, breathing Africans need and expect from life today. The use of science for political ends dehumanises debate. The Nazis’ scurrilous science reduced humans to a hierarchy of beasts. Today’s exploitation of the science of global warming by political elites doesn’t do that, of course, but it does reduce humans to Problems, who are apparently both causing global warming and whose needs and desires cannot be met because to do so would further contribute to global warming.

The use of science in politics also serves to shut down genuine, open political debate. When one side can argue that its political programme is underpinned by Scientific Truth, then its opponents and critics can easily be written off as ‘deniers’ of the Truth, as ‘liars’ and ‘anti-science charlatans’. Question the agenda of ‘sustainable development’ in Africa, which consigns millions to grinding poverty, and you will be accused of ‘ignoring the facts on global warming’; ask whether it is right to restrict people’s ability to travel the world in aeroplanes, one of the great advances of the past hundred years, and you will be told to ‘look at the science!’ Political criticisms are written off as anti-science yelps. The exploitation of science by political elements gives rise to a politics that is narrow, fatalistic and censorious.

The use and abuse of climate change science is bad for science, too. When politicians look to science for their moral authority, believing that scientists can provide a gravitas to their political campaigning, it inevitably pollutes science. The aim of science becomes less to uncover scientific truths than to lend authority to political prejudices – and science inevitably becomes bent in the process. While some scientists, such as those in Oxford, New York and Germany cited above, seem keen to resist the pollution of science by ‘unscientific assumptions’, others have unfortunately gone along with the use of their work to back up political campaigning.

As Professor Hardaker in Oxford pointed out, even an august body such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science talks about global warming in hysterical, unscientific terms, predicting ‘intensification of droughts, heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms….’ (6) The politicisation of the science of climate change may have the long-term effect of skewing the science, as some scientists fall for the promise of global authority – stardom, no less – if their findings can be made to fit in with today’s narrow political priorities.

There has been a great deal of witch-hunting of Martin Durkin and the contributors to his film The Great Global Warming Swindle over the past two weeks. This witch hunt does not only point to a high level of intolerance in the global warming debate – it also suggests widespread ignorance about who and what is really undermining science today. It is not Durkin, a lone filmmaker with few friends in high places, who is damaging science, but rather those mainstream figures in politics and the media who are using science for cynical and narrow political campaigns.

There is something profoundly inhumane in the politics of global warming, in the widespread discussion of humans as problems to be worked around rather than beings with needs and desires. Anyone interested in real and meaningful dissent today – who believes that questions about the future of humanity are not reducible to graphs and pie charts – should aim their fire at the denigration of both science and politics by today’s Great Global Warming Consensus.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) See spiked-issues: GM food, Animals, Obesity

(2) Heat, George Monbiot

(3) Caution urged on climate change ‘risks’, BBC News, 17 March 2007

(4) GLOBAL WARMING: UNGRATEFUL GREENS BEAT UP ON THE NEW YORK TIMES, San Diego Union Tribune, 16 March 2007

(5) Exaggerated Science, Der Spiegel

(6) Caution urged on climate change ‘risks’, BBC News, 17 March 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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