Friday, March 09, 2007
More on the intellectual laziness of the RCP
In a rather mendacious article, Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, has defended Martin Durkin, the producer of “The Great global Warming Swindle”, including an attack on the criticism I wrote on this blog.
O’Neill’s argument is essentially that:
i) it is irrelevant that Durkin has no background in science as neither do most of his critics
ii) criticisms of Channel 4 for showing the film are about enforcing ideological conformity – and there is no questioning of the “orthodoxy” of global warming in the mainstream media.
iii) exposing Durkin’s links to the underground RCP is a form of red baiting
iv) environmentalism promotes poverty in the developing world
Ok. So what is my personal standing to comment on this. I have a first class degree in engineering, and an MSc from Oxford University. I am a chartered engineer. I worked for 8 years in the environmental monitoring instrumentation sector, and I have published peer reviewed technical papers on the reliability and provenance of data used in assessing air quality. I have also studied the philosophy of science as I have a keen interest in the process by which we judge the truth-likeness of scientific theories. In short, while Brendan o’Neill singles out Guardian TV reviewer Zoë Williams as a “ditzy la-la columnist”, I am a professional with a background in this specific field. Not particularly eminent perhaps, but not ill-informed either.
It is probably also worth mentiooning that I used to be a climate change sceptic myself, but have become utterly convinced by the wieght of evidence and scientific debate, which I have followed as a professional.
Durkin’s lack of a scientific background is only relevant because he adopts an approach to scientific debate which is outwith the established practice of working scientists, and contrary to a philosophically defensible method of judging whether theories are sound or not. Implicit in Durkin’s approach is that theories are accepted as approximating truth likeness when they achieve consensus.
Working scientists adopt a much more sophisticated approach, and theories become established not only because they provide the best explanation of the evidence, but also when they are theoretically virtuous in the sense of their inherent consistency and that they tie in with other established theories. Over the last few years the theory that human agency causes increase in CO2 levels that is in turn causing global warming has become a mature and establish theory because of its persuasive power plus its consistency with the rest of our scientific understanding; and it is overwhelmingly accepted as correct by professional scientists.
Most theories are incomplete in the degree to which they provide a good approximation to underlying reality, which is revealed by inconsistencies with the evidence, or incompatibilities with other theories. This is not a problem with the scientific method, but rather a recognition of the way superior theories supersede inferior ones. Therefore we of course accept that the current theories could be superseded, but in order to establish the credibility of any alternate theories it would be necessary to establish that they resolve problems with the accepted theories, or provide a “progressive problem shift” by being more theoretically virtuous in the technical sense of also providing the solution to an unrelated issue. This is the scientific approach.
However, it is not Durkin’s approach to criticism of global warming theory, which is journalistic not scientific. His approach is to find controversialists who will say something shocking. My criticism, and the criticism of others, to Durkin is that it is bad science, being passed as good coin.
But his response reveals he is not interested in science, as quoted in Spiked:
“It is soft censorship’, Durkin insists. ‘If there is a huge response to a programme, then the ITC and now Ofcom feel the need to do something. So they end up censuring seriously controversial work. … The end result is phoney controversialism on TV but not much real controversialist. Ofcom is supposed to uphold standards but it does the opposite.’”
Durkin believes that controversy is inherently virtuous. But this is a facile and juvenile approach to the serious question of establishing what is true and what is not.
Similarly Durkin’s claim that we are seeking to produce ideological conformity is false. What we want to see is informed political debate, based upon the actually existing scientific consensus. There is plenty of argument to the contrary in the media, from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, and the car lobby. What is distinctly wrong about Durkin is that he seeks to undermine the informed political debate by misrepresenting the balance of scientific opinion, so as to give exaggerated weight to eccentrics.
This is also why it is not “red baiting” to expose the way Durkin is linked to the secretive libertarian pressure group formerly known as the RCP. When he made the series “Against Nature”, leading RCP ideologist Frank Furudi, and other RCP members John Gillott (aka John Gibson) and Juliet Tizzard, were passed off as “independent experts”. The passing off of RCP members as “experts” in a self referencing world of front orgsniations is part of the RCP’s modern method, as exposed by GM watch.
Brendan O’Neill says: “In fact, a few people who contributed articles to LM appeared as talking heads on Against Nature. That’s all. Not as exciting as the crazed and wide-eyed web conspiracy theories make it sound, I know. Sorry. Durkin laughs about the fact that many environmentalists fancy themselves as leftists, yet ‘they are always exposing me…as a leftist!’ ”
But in what is ostensibly a science programme is it not wholly unrepresentative for there to be several members of the RCP presented as experts, who are not in fact experts in this field.
Again, we have the problem that Durkin does not have a scientific approach, and here more specifically he has a Lysenkoist approach that objective reality must conform to ideology.
There would be no conspiracy if the people involved were genuinely scientists working in the field who also happened to be members of the RCP, but the opposite was the case, they were only there because they were members of the RCP.
Those of us on the left are not exposing Durkin for being a “leftist”, but pointing out that he is being apparently dishonest and manipulative in promoting the peculiar libertarian and laissez faire views of the RCP/LM under false colours.
There is also genuine and legitimate concern about what the agenda of the former RCP members is now with their bewildering array of front organisations, and the effort they are making to influence science policy in the direction of deregulation. The only element of “exposure” is that there clearly is a shadowy hidden agenda, and it is correct to bring that fact into the light of day.
Finally, Brendon o’Neill argues that environmentalism is condemning the developing world to poverty. “Many of the talking heads argued that our obsession with restraining development in order to ‘save the planet’ will consign the world’s poorest to a life of grime and squalor.” Firstly this displays an ignorance of the actual dynamic of capitalism which is technology neutral – economic growth can still be sustained on less carbon based technologies, but secondly it is not the expense of sustainable power generation that is inhibiting the growth of the developing world, but rather the changes in world capitalism that have subordinated developing nations into the role of raw material providers.
Sustainability does not mean an acceptance of poverty, nor does it mean a halt to economic development, but it means asserting conscious human control over the economic processes so that our industrial and agricultural activity serves humanity rather than destroying it. It means defining “development” not as economic growth for its own sake, but as focussing economic activity on improving our lives and environment.
Again there is a feeling that Brendon o’Neill has not moved beyond the juvenilia of Marinetti and the Futurists: “We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.”
What I find distasteful and repugnant about the RCP in their new guises is the elitist contempt by which they operate as a post-modern freemasonry, peddling their self serving but shallow commentary and controversialism. These are people who have never really gone beyond not tidying their bedroom as a from of teenage rebellion.