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Ben Pile: What’s Behind The Battle Of Received Wisdoms?

Ben Pile, Making Science Public

Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey on the Sunday Politics show last week caused an eruption of comment. For sceptics, it was a refreshing change of scenery: a journalist at the BBC, a stronghold of environmental orthodoxy, challenging the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, an office which is rarely held to account. But perhaps because of this, it upset many of a greener hue.

One of these complaints was that neither interviewer nor interviewee were scientists, yet the substance of their discussion was scientific. ‘Two non-scientists discuss climate change on the Sunday Politics show‘, said Roz Pidcock at the Carbon Brief blog. At an oral evidence session of  Science and Technology Committee (STC) inquiry into climate change communication last week, the issue of allowing non-expert interrogation of non-experts was raised by James Painter of the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Ros Donald, also of the Carbon Brief blog — neither of them scientists, either.

Said Painter, ‘When there are really important issues like climate sensitivity to be discussed, it’s much better to have that discussion between climate scientists’. For Painter, an earlier edition of the Sunday Politics that had featured a debate between someone from Greenpeace and James Delingpole was made futile by the fact that both had, on Painter’s view, ‘agendas’. Similarly, Ros Donald told the Committee that, over Twitter, ‘There were at least five scientists offering to go on the Sunday Politics and talk to [Andrew Neil] about decadal forecasting’.

But there are very good reasons why an energy and climate change minister might make a better guest on a politics show than a climate scientist. Whereas climate scientists might well be able to explain to the viewing audience what the current state of science is, only a politician — a policymaker — can explain how advice has been taken from scientists. In the wake of a shift in climate science, it is reasonable to ask a politician how that change is to be reflected in policy.

And the science has changed. Climate advocates may want to claim that the ‘missing heat’ theory of ocean warming explains the lack of surface warming in the last decade or so. It may even turn out to be correct. But the controversial theory is still embryonic, and is a shift away from the emphasis that has been given in the very recent past to atmospheric and surface temperatures. Moreover, this revision has consequences for the estimation of climate sensitivity and its effects at the Earth’s surface — ‘impacts’ — as many scientists from across the climate debate have observed. Interviews with climate scientists on these questions might be interesting in their own right, but right now, they wouldn’t likely shed any light on the UK government’s policies.

The emphasis on expertise is either hopelessly naive or it is an attempt to delimit permissible areas of debate for strategic ends. Heaven forefend that politicians should be interrogated, lest it turn out that far-reaching and expensive policies turn out to have been, if not drafted by people who do not have a grasp of their subject, executed by them. One might be forgiven for thinking that people who emphasise the importance of scientific advice would welcome the opportunity to interrogate policy-makers’ knowledge. But instead, the attention turned to the interviewer — Neil — who now stood accused of having an agenda.

On the pages of the Guardian’s environment blog, Dana Nuccitelli (who is not a climate scientist) compiled a list of what he thought were Neil’s mistakes. ‘These are your climate errors on BBC Sunday Politics‘, he proclaimed. But half of Nuccitelli’s rebuttals related to Neil’s treatment of the study into the extent of the scientific consensus on climate change, co-authored by Nuccitelli, which represents (according to the study) the views of 97% of scientists. Davey had cited the study during the interview, but Neil had said that it had been largely discredited (Neil has just published a response to criticisms from Nuccitelli and others. Nuccitelli has responded again here).

One reason for seeing the survey through Neil’s eyes is the fact that many sceptics have pointed out that the 97% figure encompasses the arguments of most climate sceptics. In evidence to the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee last week, Roy Spencer, a climate scientist who is routinely vilified for his apparent climate scepticism, claimed that his  arguments fell within the 97% definition. Here in the UK, climate sceptic blogger and author of the Hockey Stick Illusion, Andrew Montford tweeted in the wake of the survey, ‘isn’t everyone in the 97%? I am’. This prompted Met Office climate scientist, Richard Betts to poll the readers of the Bishop Hill blog, ‘Do you all consider yourselves in the 97%?’. It seems that almost all do.

Just as Donald and Painter’s evidence to the STC reflected either naivety or a strategy, Nuccitelli’s survey results are either the result of a comprehensive failure to understand the climate debate, or an attempt to divide it in such a way as to frame the result for political ends. The survey manifestly fails to capture arguments in the climate debate sufficient to define a consensus, much less to make a distinction between arguments within and without the consensus position. Nuccitelli’s survey seems to canvas scientific opinion, but it begins from entirely subjective categories: a cartoonish polarisation of positions within the climate debate.

Yet the survey was cited by Davey himself in defence of the government’s climate policies in the face of changing science. Whatever the scientific consensus is, the fact that this consensus can be wielded in arguments about policy without regard for the substance of the consensus creates a huge problem.

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