Skip to content

Peter Glover: The Royal Society’s Climate Of Anti-Science

As a former president of the Royal Society (1703-27) Sir Isaac Newton would be appalled by the de facto rejection of the Society’s 300-year guiding philosophical principle: “never to give their opinion as a Body upon any subject either of Nature or Art that comes before them” (1). Newton understood well that to deal in the “dull certainties” of a politicized consensus is always ruinous to the cause of empirical science. And so it is proving at the once noble Royal Society; its reputation increasingly dashed on the hard to negotiate rocks of climate science.

The Royal Society’s Climate of Anti-Science

The evidence for the abandonment of the Society’s core tenet of faith is compellingly presented in Andrew Montford’s recent hard-hitting report, ‘Nullius in Verba (On the Word of No One): The Royal Society and Climate Change’. As leading climate scientist Richard Lindzen(2) observes in the introduction, the report delivers an “unembellished chronology of the perversion not only of the Royal Society but of science itself.” No small accusation given the influence the Royal Society continues to wield with the UK Government – not to mention the UN IPCC.

Montford takes up the running: “For 300 years after its foundation, the Royal Society adopted a position of aloofness from political debates, refusing to become embroiled in the controversies of the day.” He points out how in 1955 then president Lord Adrian warned of a growing pressure felt by those “at the helm” of the Society “to become more involved with the government’s work” – a direct result of increasing public funding and the need to maintain influential “relevance”. Montford quotes Adrian thus: “What is needed … is not an academy to pronounce on the controversial points of scientific theory but one with a reasonable knowledge of the direction in which research is leading … It is neither necessary nor desirable for the Society to give an official ruling on the scientific issues, for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room.”

Even though climate science remains anything but “settled … in the laboratory”, Montford’s report presents a catalogue of public pronouncements that reveal the steady abandonment of the Society’s core philosophy, fully realising Lord Adrian’s worst fears.

Montford’s case is that the Society has lately entirely succumbed to the “near monopoly over science support exercised by governments.” Society fellows may still pay subscriptions, but that income is “dwarfed by sums routed through the Society by government – recently of the order of £40-50 million per annum” while “£2.4 million per year remains with the Society itself, supporting salaries”. The report notes how “staff numbers have risen rapidly in recent years” effecting a role change, with the Society increasingly acting “as a conduit for scientific funding [looking] more like a means of government control than an efficient way of distributing taxpayers’ largesse.”

Montford rounds on a ‘Hall of Shame’ of recent presidents, noting how the Royal Society first entered the global warming debate on the side of climate alarmists in 1989 in its pamphlet The Greenhouse Effect. “Despite its measured tone” the pamphlet is credited with having “a discernible effect on the attitudes of politicians” and even, as a later president credited it “with having led to the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a Royal Society fellow, Sir John Houghton, at the head of the scientific panel.”

In 1999 Society president Sir Aaron Klug (1995-2000) even went so far as “arguing for the imposition of a carbon tax”. Montford reports too how, “Klug has explained that he was pushing the global warming issue quite hard” – exclusively on the side of the alarmists.

Under Sir Robert May (2000-2005) Montford reports how a major donation from the Kohn Foundation led to the Society setting up the Science Policy Centre, a “central plank” in the paradigm shift from a Society that “shunned disputes” to becoming one “regularly…at the heart of political controversies”. In 2001, participation in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report and “efforts to secure ratification of the Kyoto Protocol” saw the Society’s “authority” quickly developing “the character of an advocacy group”. Yet the shift was made with “no formal consultation with the fellows over the Society’s change in direction.”

Next Montford shows how a paper on climate change issued in 2005 amounted to “a low point in the Society’s history”, being “remarkable for its aggressive stance towards those who questioned any aspect of the officially sanctioned IPCC view of climate science.” Worse followed as the Society “attempted to stifle debate on the subject of global warming” altogether when Sir David Wallace, physicist and the Society’s treasurer, sent a letter to senior members of the UK press to “discourage them from reporting sceptic opinions”. Echoes of Climategate?

In 2005 Sir Robert May admitted that he was taking an “unprecedented step” by lobbying G8 political leaders gathering at Gleneagles, Scotland. In a letter May insisted that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking action”. Later he went as far as launching a personal attack on President George W. Bush. In an article in the The Times he alleged that the president had “repeatedly overruled his own scientist’s advice” and insisted that the U.S. position was “misguided”. But May had over-reached himself. The attack brought a stinging response from the president of the U.S. National Academy of Science (NAS) who informed May stating he had “caused confusion” by misrepresenting the NAS’ “meaning and intent” and had threatened “future collaborations” between the academies as a consequence.

Next Montford documents how, in March 2005, new president Sir Martin Rees took a prominent role in backing the economic proposals in the Stern Review. Montford reports one economist as stating “Stern deserves a measure of discredit for giving readers an authoritative-looking impression” when its radical proposals “depend upon controversial assumptions and unconventional discount rates that mainstream economists would consider too low.” Worse followed as, “Under Rees, the Royal Society was involved in a concerted campaign to try to cut off funding to organisations that questioned the reality, the extent or the impact of global warming”. As Montford points out: “…strange activity for the Royal Society” and perverse given that “the advancement of ideas that question the scientific literature is the very essence of science.”

Montford shows how Lord Rees’ campaign even attempted to discredit the research of respected Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark which pointed to sun activity as having the major influence on climate, not man – research that more recently received the “strong support” of published results from CERN’s CLOUD experiment. Rees further embroiled the Society in a public attack on Channel 4’s TV documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle – even turning on the UK media watchdog Ofcom after it ruled that “the public had not been materially misled over the science” in the documentary.

By 2009, however, some members had had enough. Rebellion was finally in the air when 43 Society fellows complained that the Society had “allowed its authority to be used to promote one side of an ongoing scientific dispute”. The final straw was two publications, Facts and Fictions and Climate Change Controversies. The chief concern for the rebels was the “increasingly unscientific tone of the Society’s activism”. Referring to the second publication, one told the BBC “This appears to suggest that anyone who questions climate science is malicious. But in science everything is there to be questioned – that should be the very essence of science.”

The rebellion led to the drafting of Climate Change: A summary of the science, a less aggressive publication. But, Montford observes, while the accusations of “misleading arguments” were cut, its failure to “distance itself from earlier unscientific output leaves the Society open to criticism.” Under the current presidency of Sir Paul Nurse, Montford notes that, if anything, things have regressed once more. Montford shows how Nurse has launched a wholesale renewal of the Society’s aggressive media campaign, including championing the cause of the disgraced Climategate researchers and pursuing a “campaign against freedom of information” requests.

Montford’s conclusion is irresistible: “As the Society’s independence has disappeared, so has its former adherence to hard-nosed empirical evidence and a sober detachment from the political process.” As he says: “Gone are the doubts and uncertainties of a real scientist” replaced by a climate of anti-science; the very antithesis of the Newtonian legacy.

Nullius In Verba (On the Word of No One): The Royal Society and Climate Change by Andrew Montford is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF Report no 6).

(1)The ‘advertisement’ to The Philosophical Transactions, 1753, which set the standard for all the Society’s public dealings.

(2)Lindzen is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading climatologists.