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head of NERC responds in the
climate change debate with more
emotion than logic
Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie,
Filed 18 Mar 07
The Chairman of the Natural Environment Research
Council (NERC), Alan Thorpe, didn't care much for the recent Channel
4 television programme entitled (1)
The Great Global Warming Swindle
He wrote an article about it in this week's New
Scientist entitled (2)
A Fake Fight.
It so happens that the same programme was very
favourably reviewed on this website on March 10th by myself in an
article entitled (3)
Global warming is due to the sun: not industrial
So did the head of the major funder of climate
science in the UK have something of substance to say in his criticism
of his critics? Sadly, he didn't.
Instead, he wrote
"The programme questioned not only the
mainstream of global warming science but also the integrity of
the researchers involved in it."
" ..such accusations of bias, lying and
prejudice were bound to catch my attention".
The programme certainly did question the mainstream
of global warming science. Its freedom to do so is to be applauded.
For any scientist, let alone the head of an organisation paid for
by the taxpayer and answerable to Parliament, to infer otherwise
is quite unacceptable.
What is also to be applauded is that a number
of scientists in the field, referred to by Alan Thorpe in a somewhat
derogatory manner as "a loose affiliation ", have the
strength of their convictions to suggest that there may be bias
among Alan Thorpe's "mainstream" group.
History is littered with the phenomenon of bias
among "mainstream" scientists who have since been proven
I do not recollect any of the scientists (or indeed
commentators) involved in the television programme ever saying that
scientific colleagues with whom they disagreed were "lying".
Such scientists may have conveniently overlooked certain basic facts
in the presentations of their case, but that does not amount to
lying. To my knowledge, scientists - and many others besides - have
been doing that for eternity. It does not make them liars, but just
rather poor scientists.
What I was looking for in Alan Thorpe's article
was some logical rebuttal of the views expressed in the TV programme.
There was none. All i got was evidence of prejudice delivered with
high octane emotion. Thus
"The climate system is complex and it is
likely that many factors affect it, cosmic rays among them. But
to claim they are a major influence is disingenuous. There is
far greater evidence suggesting CO2 is the major cause of warming"
What evidence would that be? A clue is given a
little further on in Alan Thorpe's inappropriate outburst
"What's more, from the comprehensive models
that climate scientists have built up, it is clear that only human
made greenhouse gases can explain this warming. Other factors,
such as solar variations, have been found to be insignificant
But the programme rightly pointed to major concerns
about placing too much store on what the modellers tell us. Their
models are only as good as the information fed into them. We have
all seen how convincingly misleading in other fields the predictions
of modellers can be, and to our severe cost. The inappropriate management
of the Foot and Mouth epidemic based on epidemiological modeling
in the UK in 2001 is a good example (4).
Ironically, the same issue of New Scientist carried
an article by Fred Pearce, an environment consultant and a leading
contributor to the magazine (5).
His message was
"Mathematical models underpin much of our
understanding of the planet but in the wrong hands they can do
more harm than good".
He provided good examples, such as the fate of
what was once the world's most famous fishery, on Canada's Grand
"If the fisheries scientists' models had
been correct, the waters would still be teeming with cod. Instead
they abruptly emptied in 1992, and show no signs of recovering".
It is alleged that in this case the models used
to calculate a sustainable catch
`"were skewed by ignorance, hubris and
The further sad thing is that apparently the same
methodology is still governing fisheries around the world.
Perhaps Professor Alan Thorpe, Department of Meteorology
at Reading University, could gain some scientific humility and a
more guarded confidence in environmental models by reading the recent
book from the Department of Environment and Earth Studies, Duke
University, North Carolina, USA (6),
"Useless Arithmetic: Why environmental
scientists can't predict the future"
The article in this week's new Scientist by the
head of the UK's major funder of climate science, NERC, does little
credit to its author or to the organisation he represents. It would
also seem to reduce the magazine to a sort of pseudoscientific tabloid.
The politicising of science is now so open that
it is there for all to see.
In Scotland we need look no further than the actions
of the newly appointed Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Anne
Glover. She dismissed the independent panel that previously advised
the Scottish Executive on matters scientific, preferring to appoint
her own choice of scientists to adjudicate on research projects:
projects that were required by parliamentary decree to conform with
an agenda set by politicians (7).
High up on that agenda, not only in Scotland but throughout the
UK, is the aim to lead the world in reducing global warming through
reduction in CO2 emissions.
Of course the politicians, and those whom they
appoint to carry out their wishes, don't want to hear of anything
that could possibly undermine such a prestigious - and in their
view, vote enhancing - policy. Indeed, the politicians would be
looking to the head of the UK's main relevant funding organisation
to have no truck with anything that might detract from their purpose.
But once egg begins to gather on the political
face, the politicians will blame the successive heads of the major
funding organisation for getting it wrong. They will also blame
their political predecessors for choosing the wrong scientists to
have so much influence over UK climate research.
It is with some regret that I am unlikely to be
around for long enough to see what eventually comes about. The consequences
of getting the cause or causes of global warming wrong are immense.
The price of trying to substantially reduce man made CO2 emissions
would be wasted if man's carbon imprint turned out to be largely
irrelevant. But, if it transpires that man made CO2 is the main
factor, the cost of not facing up to the problem now could be heavy.
In trying to make a judgement as to who is right,
I believe most people would like to hear an open appraisal of what
is truly fact and what is still very uncertain, without omitting
evidence that doesn't quite fit. Towards that end, Alan Thorpe's
article in which he attempted to rubbish a fascinating programme
on the subject did not help.
1. Channel 4 TV (2007). The Great
Global Warning Swindle. March 4th.
2. Thorpe, Alan (2007). A Fake
New Scientist. vol 193, no 2595:17th March 2007: p24.
3. Irvine, James (2007). Global
warming is due to the sun: not industrial CO2.
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 10 Mar 07, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
4. Kitching, R.P., Thrusfield,
M.V. and Taylor, N.M. (2006). Use and abuse of mathematical models:
an illustration from the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic in
the United Kingdom.
In: Biological disasters of animal origin: the role and
preparedness of veterinary and public health services. Edited by
Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz. 25 (1), 293-311
5. Pearce, Fred (2007). No way
to save the planet. `
New Scientist. vol 193, no 2595:17th March 2007: p 53.
6. Pilkey, Orrin H. and
Pilkey-Jarvis, Linda (2007). Useless Arithmetic: why environmental
scientists can't predict the future.
Columbia University Press. ISNB 9780231132121
7. Irvine, James (2007).
Scotland's new Chief Scientific Advisor delivers a lecture at the
Royal Society of Edinburgh. How does she shape Up?
See SCIENCE Homepage, filed 21 Feb 07, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View