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.

18 comments:

Casey said...

Everyones a damn critic they ought to let who know there job take care of everything. The media including channel 4 should be held to more professional
reporting. It is kind of like polls you can make read anyway you want.

Alex Nichols said...

"I used to be a climate change sceptic myself, but have become utterly convinced by the wieght of evidence and scientific debate"

Same here: About 15 years ago, I remember saying Human Global warming was probably bollocks because of volcanoes.

This was an argument that they repeated on the Channel 4 programme.

Since those days, I've actually spent time checking the facts and the figure is nearer 1% of CO2 emissions.

So they lied!

Piers Corbyn clearly believes what he says, but I'm intrigued to know what bookmaker he's using

Salman Shaheen said...

Oxford? Oh dear oh dear...

Anonymous said...

I too have studied the philosophy of science, AN, and I think you're wrong to put Durkin in the anti-science camp. AN claims Durkin is not presenting his argument in a scientific fashion.

Apparently Durkin looked for opinions based on their controversial content rather than their truth content. Sorry but this didn't gel with the programme I saw.

On the Great Global Warming Swindle, Durkin presented scientists who questioned the orthodoxy that global warming is caused by human-produced CO2.
This orthodoxy was shown to be wrong for a number of reasons:

1) human-produced CO2 is less than what nature produces naturally from the seas and volcanoes

2) data regarding the warming of the earth does not tally with periods when human-produced CO2 has risen - in fact sometimes the earth has cooled when CO2 production has risen

3) rises and dips in solar activity are a more plausible theory to explain warming and cooling

4) the environmentalist campaign preserves existing reality whereas development is urgently needed in the third world

Nowhere does AN debate these scientific points. In fact this whole discussion seems to just be about slurring people. You think if you can show someone's 'evil' motivations then the argument goes away. That promotes censoriousness and self-proclaimed socialists should be ashamed of it.

Barry Curtis

Anonymous said...

"What we want to see is informed political debate, based upon the actually existing scientific consensus".

So debating anything outside of the "consensus" isn't fair game?

AN said...

One of the contributers to the program profesor Wunsch is a serious scientist, and now says he is coinsidering complaining as he was misrepresnted.

Read what Wunsch himself wrote previoulsy; "Thus at bottom, it is very difficult to separate human induced change from natural change, certainly not with the confidence we all seek. In these circumstances, it is essential to remember that the inability to prove human-induced change is not the same thing as a demonstration of its absence. It is probably true that most scientists would assign a very high probability that human-induced change is already strongly present in the climate system, while at the same time agreeing that clear-cut proof is not now available and may not be available for a long-time to come, if ever. Public policy has to be made on the basis of probabilities, not firm proof."

http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=4688&tip=1

That is Wunsch is absolootley right to phrase it this way. there can be scientific debate, and there are always imperfections in any theory.

But we need to acknoweldge the mechanism by which scientific debate happens, and in this case this in the context of a largely mature and established theory that human activity is responsible for global warming.

In contrast durkin presents a number of arguments that create the impression there is less consensus than there really is, and in so doing is seeking to misrepresent the scientific consensus in order to infulece the public opolicy debate among non scientists.

I am not addressing the scientific arguments from Durkin's film as this has been done in much of the mainstream press over the last week or so, and i don't see this blog as playng a particularly useful role in reproducing what is alreayd carried in the mianstream press.

If thie srgument continues to run then I may address the sceintific issues - i am haapy enough to do so.

The issue I have rasied, becasue it is not adequately coverered in thr mainstream press, is the a priori presumption against the global warming theory that the RCP/ML/ioi have, which seems to inform Durkin, based upon prejudging the scientific debate on ideological grounds.

It ois not slurring people to point this out - it refelcts on the credibikity of Durkin as a witness.

AN said...

and to the other anonymous fool ( or is it the same one)

If the political and public policy debate over a scientific issue is not informed by the scientific consensus - then yes that is a bad thing.

For there to be scientific debate outside the consensus is a good thing. But the journalistic coverage should explain to the non-scientific audeince what the relative weight fo the diufferent opinions is.

Durkin misrepresents the weigt of the sceptics, and seeks to infleunce the pubkic policy debate among non scientists with arguments that have been discredited among scientists, without acknowledging that.

Phil said...

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.

Thanks for that. A while ago I wrote a review of a rather bad collection of 'alternative' theorising on various topics, whose editor espoused the "one white crow" model of falsificationism: if I can find one piece of evidence that doesn't fit the dominant theory, that proves the dominant theory is false!. I was struggling at the time to formulate exactly what was so wrong with this line of argument, but you've just spelt it out rather economically.

Louisefeminista said...

It also seems to me that Durkin supporters deliberately confuse fact and inference. An assumption is developed that an inference is the same as a fact. In order to be valid an inference must be absolutely true as a fact. So a fact is something that is seen or heard by a person or detected by a scientific instrument. An inference is drawn by applying reasoning to a set of facts. In life, you have to draw inferences in everyday but they are no more than an approximation of the truth.

The "white crow" example would part of this. A statement that "crows are black" is useful, it tells you something about crows that is worth being told. It does not collapse and become meaningless because on very rare occasions a white crow is discovered.

The dishonest method that the climate change deniers use is that because an inference does not have the certainty of truth that a fact has then the inference ceases to have any validity at all.This is why most statements made by reputable scientists, at least about new conclusions is made quite tentitively and often includes references to contradictory findings and so on.

smiffy said...

Funny stuff from the RCP, alright. I particularly enjoyed the way they try to debunk the claims about Durkin's links to Spiked in a fawning interview with him in ... well ... Spiked. Doh!

Oh, one disingenuous point O'Neill glossed over isn't that Durkin was criticised for being a, or a former, Marxist. It was specifically about the Revolutionary Communist Party (references to which were notable in their absence from the Spiked piece).

More dishonestly though, O'Neill claims that the complaints about Durkin's previous programme 'Against Nature' constitute (a)soft censorship (obviously any criticism of something O'Neill supports must be censorship) and (b) that the complaints upheld by the ITC were later overturned by Ofcom. This latter point is simply untrue, as can be seen here.

While most of the complaints (that the programme was inaccurate and biased) weren't upheld (important to note that this doesn't mean that the programme was accurate or unbiased, but simply that those aren't grounds for an official complaint). However, the substantial complaints, that participants in the programme were misrepresented and not informed about the content of the programmes, were upheld by Ofcom. It is this that Channel 4 had to apologise for and which is being referred to when we talk about Durkin's record of dishonesty.

For O'Neill to suggest otherwise is, simply, lying.

Just another day at the office for Team RCP, I guess.

Anonymous said...

What is it with socialists that they appear to have quite a fetish for name-calling?

Anonymous said...

It's fascinating that in the green activist's eyes, the complex web of interactions and money laundering between anti-developmemnt activism, green NGOs, green academics, green businesses and government, and persistent entryism by these groups into national and international bodies isn't in any way a conspiracy, whereas a small bunch of journalists with a website and a few newspaper/magazine columns, and one documentary, is.

Should we note, for instance, that the supposedly independent scientists responsible for most of the climate "reconstructions" promote their views on Realclimate.org, which is registered to Environmental Media Services, part of the infamous anti-capitalist front organisation Fenton Communications, whose sister org The Tides Foundation launders green business money into activist organisations, stripping attribution so that, say, organic farming interests can fund pro-organic activism without a direct audit trail? Isn't that just a tidge more conspiratorial than a bunch of libertarian journalists on a website who make no secret of the naive political allegiances of their youth?

How can scientists claim to be independent when they are holding hands with extremist political pressure groups?

AN said...

Thanks to our last anonymous chum for pointing out the link with the RCp/lM/Ioi's other hobby horse. their enthusiasm for agribusiness and GM.

after all monsanto and other huge agri-business concerns never try to influence public policy, these huge corporations must feel like david's compared to the goliath of "organic farming interets"

(This does not mean i am uncritical of greenwash, but get real!)

Anonymous said...

According to a right-wing web site:-

"The Tides Foundation, a “charity” established in 1976 by antiwar leftist activist Drummond Pike, distributes millions of dollars in grants every year to political organizations advocating far-Left causes. The Tides Foundation and its closely allied Tides Center, which was spun off from the Foundation in 1996 but run by Drummond Pike, distributed nearly $66 million in grants in 2002 alone. In all, Tides has distributed more than $300 million for the Left. These funds went to rabid antiwar demonstrators, anti-trade demonstrators, domestic Islamist organizations, pro-terrorists legal groups, environmentalists, abortion partisans, extremist homosexual activists and open borders advocates."

Where can I get an application form?

Inductance said...

For some scientific responses to the reply you might want to look at Real Climate which has a response from Carl Wunsch who feels he was misrepresented and a short reply to some of the key arguments in the program. The site is somewhat overloaded at present though so you might have a problem getting through. However it is worth it - a site with a lot of detailed, referenced articles on all aspects of Global Warming but not at too technical a level. Comments on the blogs also get a high response rate from the authors who are climate scientists.

Inductance said...

OK Barry Curtis to take on your 3 key scientific arguments:
> 1) human-produced CO2 is less than what nature produces naturally from the seas and
> volcanoes
"Scientists have calculated that volcanoes emit between about 130-230 million tonnes (145-255 million tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere every year (Gerlach, 1999, 1992). This estimate includes both subaerial and submarine volcanoes, about in equal amounts. Emissions of CO2 by human activities, including fossil fuel burning, cement production, and gas flaring, amount to about 22 billion tonnes per year (24 billion tons) [ ( Marland, et al., 1998) - The reference gives the amount of released carbon (C), rather than CO2.]. Human activities release more than 150 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes--the equivalent of nearly 17,000 additional volcanoes like Kilauea (Kilauea emits about 13.2 million tonnes/year)!"
http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/Hazards/What/VolGas/volgas.html

The Ocean is more complex - it absorbs and emits CO2. For 1990 to 1999, the net uptake by the ocean is estimated as 1.7 ± 0.5 PgC/yr http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/096.htm

So this argument is simply wrong. Getting basic facts like this wrong should immediatly make you question the credibility of the program and if nothing else, check the other arguments very carefully.

Additionally isotopic composition measurements have shown that the isotopic composition of the increases in CO2 are consistent with human emissions. (sorry I can't find a reference for this at the moment)

> 2) data regarding the warming of the earth does not tally with periods when
> human-produced CO2 has risen - in fact sometimes the earth has cooled when CO2
> production has risen
The program itself explained the reason why CO2 does not correlate simply with temperatures - the ocean takes a very long time to heat up. This means that there is a big time lag associated with global warming. It's a bit like the time between turning an electric ring on and the water in your pan starting to heat up. The dip/leveling off in the middle is due to sulfate aerosols. Models can now easily capture this. See: http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/figspm-4.htm which shows how a model with only natural variation is unable to reproduce the observations at all, a model with anthropogenic forcings does a better job but does best with both natural and antropogenic warmings.

> 3) rises and dips in solar activity are a more plausible theory to explain warming
> and cooling
This is a theory with very little support or evidence backing it up. One of the key sources used for this argument has errors. The most damning evidence though is the fact that solar activity has recently decreased while the temperatures have continued to rise. See:
http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/DamonLaut2004.pdf

I suspect that a complete scientific critique of this program will take weeks if not months to finish. In the meantime the damage to public's understanding of this topic has been done.

I have only touched on the problems in the 3 points you raised - however I have tried to provide some evidence for all my points. Please read some of the references here and then decide. Other useful sources are the global warming article on Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming which is a featured article and very well referenced, and http://www.realclimate.org

As for your 4th point - that already seems to be extensively argued but it's odd how the program didn't metion that Kyoto doesn't apply to the developing world....

a very public sociologist said...

It's very sad that the ex-RCP and its hangers on claim that science-backed critiques of their crank position amount to "censorship". Pathetic.

Good article in the Guardian today by Monbiot, followed by a lenghty "full and frank" exchange in Comment is Free. Read it at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2032575,00.html

Inductance said...

More information on the problems with the science, this time from John Houghton can be found
here
. John Houghton was the lead editor of first three IPCC reports. He was professor in atmospheric physics at the University of Oxford, former Chief Executive at the Met Office and founder of the Hadley Centre.

To quote briefly: "The material presented was a mixture of truth, half truth and falsehood put together with the sole purpose of discrediting the science of global warming as presented by the main world community of climate scientists and by the IPCC."