What next, a Committee on Un-Scientific Activities?

The experts demanding that a film on climate change be 'corrected' before it is released on DVD are behaving more like Stalinists than scientists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

A group of scientists and science communicators has written an open letter to WAG, a TV production company, insisting that it make changes to its film The Great Global Warming Swindle before releasing it on DVD.

The 38 signatories include Bob Ward, the former spokesman for the prestigious Royal Society in London, as well as former heads of Britain’s academy of sciences and the weather office. They argue that Martin Durkin’s film, which claims that global warming is not man-made and which caused a storm of controversy when it was shown on Channel 4 in Britain in March, contains a ‘long catalogue of fundamental and profound mistakes’, and these ‘major misrepresentations’ should be removed before the film hits the DVD shelves later this year. ‘Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, the letter-writers claim (1).

What next, a House Committee on Un-Scientific Activities, where this self-selected group of scientists and communicators could officially sit in judgement on anyone who says the ‘wrong thing’ about global warming? Last year, when he was working at the Royal Society, Bob Ward wrote a letter to ExxonMobil demanding in hectoring fashion that the oil giant cut off its funding to groups that have ‘misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence’; now he says films that go against the ‘truth’ of global warming should be chopped and changed before release (2). Perhaps any new House Committee on Un-Scientific Activities could begin by forcing those who appear in its hallowed halls to swear ‘I am not, and never have been, funded by oil companies’, before instructing them on what is the correct thing to say in public about climate change. All others shall be silenced.

These scientists ought to be ashamed of themselves. They are behaving in a fashion that does not befit intellectual scientific debate. When they claim that they are not being censorious, but rather are standing up for facts and ‘for the public interest’, they protest way too much. From Torquemada to McCarthy, virtually every censorious group in society has claimed merely to be protecting what is true or right or correct, and thus saving the public from allegedly dangerous ideas. Torquemada wanted to save humanity from religious heresy; McCarthy said he was protecting Americans from reds under the bed. Now some want to shield our eyes from allegedly oil-funded ‘climate change deniers’ lest they warp our minds and make us behave in a carbon-irresponsible fashion.

Even worse, the scientists’ demand that information be ‘corrected’ from on high so that it does not sow confusion and controversy amongst the public speaks to a profoundly anti-intellectual outlook. They seem not to appreciate how important controversy is. Controversy is not, as they seem to believe, a bad idea; nor is it, as others argue, something that’s simply fun or sexy, a ‘good idea’ in a democratic society. Rather, controversy is crucial to the development of human thought – especially in the realm of science.

You don’t have to look very far to see where the 38 scientists might have got the outrageous notion that they have the authority to write to a TV production company and insist that it change the content of one of its films. As I have argued before on spiked, there is a censorious streak in debates about climate change today, where those who question the scientific consensus on global warming are frequently written off as ‘deniers’, a term which seems designed to link them with Holocaust deniers (see Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill). Many argue that those who kick against the climate change consensus should be denied funding, sacked from university posts and kept off the airwaves (3).

Those who call for such censorship always claim to be protecting scientific facts from pseudo-scientific charlatans. That might be more believable if they took a consistent approach towards opposing the publication of strange scientific claims. The 38 scientists say they want to protect the public from a factually inaccurate DVD. During a recent quick trip to my local HMV I saw a DVD of the TV series Jamie’s School Dinners in which our eponymous hero – Jamie Oliver – dressed up various scare stories in medical scientific garb. He said today’s children are so unhealthy that they will die before their parents, and claimed that some kids are so fat they are puking up their own faeces. There were also DVDs on alternative health and acupuncture and how ‘yoga can improve your self-esteem’. In all good bookshops there are shelves that groan almost audibly under the weight of books that make junk scientific claims. Our brave protectors of the public interest don’t seem to mind about all that.

Indeed, it was striking that around the same time that the 38 scientists wrote to WAG to complain about The Great Global Warming Swindle, the British government announced plans to send a copy of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth to every secondary school in the country. Some very serious scientists have raised questions about the scientific accuracy of Gore’s movie. Don J Easterbrook, emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, said: ‘ I don’t want to pick on Al Gore… But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.’ (4) Yet Gore’s allegedly inaccurate claims will be used to ‘stimulate debate about climate change’ amongst schoolchildren (in the words of UK education secretary Alan Johnson) while Durkin’s allegedly inaccurate claims are labelled unfit for public consumption.

This is really about the moral message of the films rather than their scientific underpinnings. Because Gore’s movie has the ‘correct’ moral outlook (global warming is manmade, and we must all take individual responsibility for changing our behaviour and lowering our horizons), it is sanctioned by the authorities and even used to reshape children’s understanding of humanity and our relationship with the planet. Because Durkin’s movie has the ‘incorrect’ moral outlook (global warming is not manmade, and demands that we limit carbon emissions are proving disastrous for the developing world), it is vilified.

Some are in effect using claims of scientific authority to copperfasten what is in fact a deeply moralistic campaign dictating what people should expect from life today. The consequences of using science in this way are as ominous as they are far-reaching. It is bad for political debate because when certain positions are said to be scientifically verified then they are also considered to be beyond interrogation. It is bad for science, too, because the use of scientific data to confer authority on explicitly political positions will surely pollute the morally neutral aim of science to discover new things, while also potentially firing up public cynicism with science.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the 38 scientists’ call for a film on global warming to be ‘corrected’ is just how anti-intellectual such a demand is. Ideas are developed, indeed facts are established, only through the most rigorous debate possible. As John Stuart Mill wrote nearly 150 years ago: ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.’ (5) In short, the only way to test out ideas – to prove them or improve them, to see if they’re right or true or useful or nonsense – is by submitting them to free and open debate. Restricting the communication or publication of certain ideas damages intellectual debate across the board because it limits our ability to weigh things up and work things out.

This is especially true of science. Science thrives on hypotheses being verified or falsified. Its lifeblood is the sharing of ideas and findings and claims, both amongst scientists and also between scientists and the public – findings which scientists discuss and explore, seeking to prove or disprove them through research and interrogation. In this sense, controversy, including the kind of controversy stirred up by The Great Global Warming Swindle, should not be seen as a negative thing; controversy should be viewed as a crucial component of scientific and intellectual development; it can excite people, intensify debate, and allow us to reach a firmer conclusion about what we believe to be true and what is right.

Perhaps more than any other area of life, science develops through a self-corrective process. In demanding that something be corrected from on high, and before being fully submitted for public consideration, the 38 scientists complaining to WAG have violated the very spirit of their vocation. They have behaved less like scientists, and more like Stalinists.

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

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill condemned the demonisation of ‘climate change denial’. Patrick West argued against the worship of nature. Frank Furedi said ‘denial’ is a really bad idea. Rob Lyons rejected science corrupted by politics. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky looked at the use and abuse of scientific truth. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) Scientists want edits to warming skeptic’s film, Associated Press, 25 April 2007

(2) See Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) See Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) From a rapt audience, a call to cool the hype, New York Times, 13 March 2007

(5) On Liberty, Mill, 1859

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

Topics Politics


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