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The New Football: Kick a Scientist

March 2, 2010

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Charles Becker permalink
    March 2, 2010 8:22 pm

    Good post. I’m from the Pacific NW USA, but read the the Guardian comments faithfully. You and some others are doing a yeoman’s job against the clueless — keep up the good work. BTW, what cooling?, we have had the warmest winter ever here, guess that proves AGW :).

    P.S. Sorry to inflict Inhofe upon you Brits. You’ve got enough of your own.

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    March 2, 2010 10:15 pm

    Hey Charles. Thanks very much for the kind comment.

    Funny you should mention Inhofe. Dear me, that’s some scary stuff you’ve got going on there – talk about history repeating itself. It’s hard to judge from the UK quite how widespread the right’s disaffection is spreading. We hear about Fox, Palin, Beck and others, and this inquisition of Inhofe’s seems to be another facet of a problem that must be most troubling to many Americans. I only hope they are the majority.

  3. Simon Willace permalink
    March 17, 2010 6:55 pm

    GP

    We have communicated before, I’m Cause.
    I also spend more time than I should thinking, talking and writing about AGW. My written work has reached around the world and has been translated and compiled into articles and books published by universities and the United Nations on AGW related subjects from Kyoto to Earthquakes.
    All earth shaking stuff but I have yet to be truly satisfied with the response received, I feel like every article fails, and gets me no closer to achieving the goal.
    I guess it’s because people are actually powerless to change normal human behavior.
    In the good ol days before AGW there were less than 1 billion people doing much the same things, but their impact was negligible compared with what 7 billion people can do.

    In a drought more hands to the pump doesn’t really help much if they are just standing around drinking water.

    In this article you say; the easy way to marginalize the daft and the disaffected is to stop writing about them.
    Then you go on writing about them, not so easy is it?

    Then convexly this presents the massive problem, how do you reach them? and educate them out of this ignorance, as they know not what they do except business as usual, if only they saw what we see. Is it futile?

    Through research and realization I may have an idea worth sharing to adress this problem, but it’s such a monumental project of such immense proportion that I cannot possibly do it alone.
    like so many other books this one is to be a collaborative collection of views expressed on a complicated subject. An educational tool with a difference.

    I was wondering if you could spare the time to explore my ramblings fully, and read a far from perfect 3 chapter 1st draft along with a personal perspective. Once thats done I would like you to contribute

    This represents an 11 year work in progress that I am ready to let go so that it can begin its next developmental phase.

    kind regards
    Simon

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    March 17, 2010 9:58 pm

    Hi Simon,

    I’d be glad to have a look at your draft, and if there was something meaningful I could contribute I would certainly be happy to do so.

    I’m sorry you feel frustrated. Goals are tricky things, and the only solution I’ve come up with is to try to convert the world one person at a time. There are some obvious problems with this plan, so I’d be interested in finding and contributing to a better one. Why don’t you drop me an email and we’ll talk some more – graham at gpwayne.com

  5. Michel permalink
    April 11, 2010 4:31 am

    Rather belated visit to read what’s new on your blog, and perhaps my brain is a little tired and literal, but I wonder if Prof. Jones can be said to have made *any* idiotic errors that he has not subsequently corrected in more recent papers, in the usual scientific fashion: one thinks of the Chinese weather stations brouhaha that was subject to clarifications and adjustments in 2008, for instance.

    And even the few recently demonstrated errors in the IPCC reports have to be compared with the scrupulous, almost ridiculously so, review that everything else in those scientific review volumes underwent–and the errors, once identified, have been owned up to with much scientific sackcloth-and-ashes.

    I think Pearce and Monbiot’s journalistic rending of their clothes in agony and despair is, in comparison, a pretty cheap spectacle!

  6. gpwayne permalink*
    April 11, 2010 7:01 am

    Michel, I think you’re right. Time, as ever, gives a better perspective on what happened, and what real impact it had. Looking back myself, the sinking feeling I had was not caused by poor science or what the emails revealed. It was the certain knowledge that we would be under continuous fire for months from those who seek any way to distort the public discourse about climate change.

    Still, thanks for popping by. Hope to see you again.

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