The New Football: Kick a Scientist
So Phil Jones has been questioned in what looks suspiciously like a witch-hunt. I was rather surprised at the way the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce ‘reported’ this story in the Guardian, since there were a number of subjective statements that one doesn’t expect to see in news stories.
I’ve been thinking about this, and the number of articles in the Guardian that have appeared since COP15 and the CRU email publication, many of which have discussed, defended or attacked the principles of the IPCC, or Jones. Then there have been a number of articles on extreme scepticism, which is hardly helpful since it tends to make the business of denialism appear rather more important than I think it really is. If we didn’t give them so much space, the tinfoil brigade would have to hold their therapy sessions in the backwoods of the blogosphere. The easy way to marginalise the daft and the disaffected is to stop writing about them.
But there are two problems. The first is quite human: tremendous disappointment. Writers like Pearce and Monbiot have spent years studying climate change, battling away against a tide of cynicism and rank demagoguery. They have the best of intentions, but in the face of public complacency and ignorance I suspect they both feel they are fighting a worthy but losing battle (and Monbiot has admitted as much) – a battle against that part of the public displaying an ugly mob mentality, against a well-organised and funded disinformation campaign, against some of the most despicable but vociferous pundits on the extreme right, and against the complacency and hand-wringing of governments who pay lip service to the issues while acting in a way that undermines the credibility of their claims and responses.
If you are as committed as Pearce or Monbiot, consider how you would feel if all that hard work was so stupidly sabotaged by someone like Jones, by idiotic mistakes in AR4. The whole fiasco has been an enormous setback for science, for climate change, for prospective policy and for rationality – a setback not in terms of the science, but of that most dangerous commodity – perception. This is one ship the rats are boarding at a frightening rate, if for no other reason than to try to sink it by sheer weight of numbers, that weight being their only weapon since they have no science.
So what we have here is an example of climate change cannibalism. We all seek someone to blame on occasion, and this is no different. The aggression, the bitterness and vitriol coming from Pearce, and Monbiot to a lesser extent, is a product of their own disillusion, their own sense of embattlement. They feel they are failing in their duty to inform the public of a grave danger, and want a scapegoat for that failure. Jones is perfect for the role because he has let everyone down – the unsuspecting public, the pundits, the rest of the scientific establishment, bloggers like you and I – we’ve been fighting a battle of perception, trying to keep science healthy in the face of fundamentalist distortion and hype, and this is a massive set back for that perception.
The science itself remains impervious to attack, to perception, to demagoguery or blatant falsehood. Every book-burning mob, every cleric and ideologue that ever tried to take on science, all picked a fight they could not win. From heliocentricity, through non-flat worlds and evolution, atomic theory and Phlogiston (which took a century to kill off), relativity, electricity, DNA and the rest – every ancestor of our dear deniers is buried in a lonely grave, the tombstone inscribed by scientists with the retort ‘Told You So’.
But this battle is not merely about discovery, it is about a clear and present danger, and this invokes a potent sense of responsibility for the reporting and maintenance of the perceptions. Those who have fought so hard and for so long are suffering terrible disappointment and dismay, and now they want to give someone a damn good kicking. Jones is the football.
I mentioned that there are two problems. The second one is rather more cynical. Since COP15 there has been a dearth of new climate science stories. The work carries on and cannot be rushed, but no new smoking guns have been found, no powerful studies released, no major discoveries announced. Pearce has to make a living, and turning his anger into saleable items is a nice little earner. Monbiot has been notably quiet since Christmas, and while the smug bastards have their sordid theories, the fact is that George hasn’t had much to write about unless he jumps on the ‘kick a denialist’ bandwagon, which I’m glad to say he has resisted recently.
One other thing – the dodgy glacier date. Where did this come from? Why, the same Fred Pearce, who evidently didn’t check what he’d been told, for if he had he would have made clear the speculative nature of the date in the 1999 article he wrote, and in which the 2035 claim – based on no scientific evidence whatever – first appeared. It seems he bears some responsibility in this matter, but I haven’t seen a mea culpa from him for his irresponsible reporting and failure to check the facts. I’d also be interested to know why it took him three years to notice the inclusion in AR4 of a date taken from his own story.
Sometimes we bluster with self-righteous anger in order to cover up our own complicity.
For all of us not in the grip of rampant anxiety, those who don’t turn every issue into an ideological football, patience is the watchword. Climate change hasn’t gone anywhere, and nor has 30 years of research and study. Better science and more compelling evidence will emerge as time marches on. We must wait for time really will tell. Let’s hope it does so before it’s too late.