Part 1: Never to give their opinion as a body
A review and discussion of Nullius in Verba: On the Word of No One. The Royal Society and Climate Change, Andrew Montford, GWPF, 2012
Before Cromwell Mortimer died in the winter of 1752, he had gathered together all the papers presented to the Royal Society during 1749-50 for what was mostly now a biennial publication. Philosophical Transactions had been the private enterprise of the Society’s Secretary since the first Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, sent some of the earliest scientific papers to the presses in 1665. The Society had expanded in both membership and its ‘communications’ since those early days, and Mortimer’s last edition was a hefty tome of 751 pages—that is, if you don’t count the auxiliary text, which included the 32 pages listing the 167 papers it contained.
After Mortimer’s death, the Society stepped in and took over. Instead of attempting to publish all the papers presented at its meetings, a committee was established to select those outstanding in the importance or singularity of the subjects, or ‘the advantageous manner of treating them.’ And thus so the Society, formed primarily to advance experimental method, took another step down the path towards the modern practice of establishing scientific authority by peer review. In taking this step it immediately created a competitive scarcity and so a status; a status that slowly developed in complex hierarchies until eventually a professionalised science two centuries later would use it to evaluate the standing of its scientists, which thereby served to determine their careers, their salaries, their academic power.
While the Society’s Council at the middle of the 18th century would have had no idea where this was heading, they did not take this step lightly. An ‘Advertisement’ to the next volume of the Transactions (#47) gives a careful explanation evoking a powerful caveat.
Their problem was not only in the enlargement of membership and communication. It was also that, despite disclaimers and retractions, ‘common opinion’ had given that the 46 previous volumes of the Transactions were published with the ‘authority’ and ‘direction’ of the Society itself, even to the extent that they were oft cited as the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society.’
What’s the big deal with that? you may ask. Indeed, we are now all blindly familiar with the common disclaimer of institutional journals to the effect that while all due care is taken in reviewing and selecting papers, nonetheless the views expressed are those of the author and not those of [the institution]. So familiar are we with these disclaimers—with this presumption—that we can be forgiven for overlooking the historical significance of the caveat that was to follow in the Advertisement. The Society makes no pretence ‘to answer for the certainty of the facts, or propriety of the reasoning, contained in the several papers so published, which must still rest on the credit or judgement of their respective authors.’
In fact, the Advertisement goes further and takes the opportunity to declare that the same goes for all presentations made to meetings of the Society, and that if thanks are proposed to a presenter from the chair—or the assembly does applaud, or the newspapers, or authors, do report that they did so—this should not be taken as the Society giving assent to the opinions there expressed, but should only be taken as ‘a matter of civility, in return for the respect shown to the Society by those communications.’
The Advertisement makes clear that any authority that the Society may garner should rest only upon its original and continuing purpose, which is to advance its method of inquiry (i.e., experimental/empirical). Its authority should never be associated with any particular opinion apparently established upon this method. And so on the occasion when it finally, formally institutes its journal – almost a century after its Charter – the Royal Society deems it necessary to declare:
…that it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion, as a body, upon any subject, either of nature or art, that comes before them.
The reasons for taking such a strong stand on this issue are apparent elsewhere in the Society’s early declarations (see especially The History of the Royal Society and my discussion of it here). The Society was founded in the tenuous toleration of The Restoration, when the politics of ideas remained bloody, and it now continued to navigate through ongoing religious controversies and into the enlarged and degenerate political sphere so marvellously satirised by Hogarth. The Society could only survive and prosper in its purpose by daring to broadly tolerate opinion (upon the evidence), without, itself, being held accountable for it. But there is also a very obvious and timeless reason for a society promoting the advancement of science to remain neutral on all matters of opinion: it serves its purpose of advancement to avoid re-enforcing, by the authority of anything other than the science, the prevailing orthodoxy on any subject of inquiry. The continuing importance to the Society of this discipline is suggested in that this same Advertisement was henceforth stamped at the head of every issue of the Transactions for the next 200 years.
In Andrew Montford’s recent GWPF report on the opinions attributed to the Royal Society concerning climate change, it is not the Nullius in Verba of the title that is the central theme. Rather, the demise of the Royal Society in violation of this rule never to give an opinion as a body—this is its core theme and its powerful message.
Montford’s sparse and unembellished chronicling of the relaxation of this discipline is what makes it such a powerful work. Montford does not pretend to chronicle the perversion of science itself, as Richard Lindzen suggests in the Foreword – he does that elsewhere, and daily, on his blog. Nonetheless, his story of the perversion of the Royal Society is an emblem, a sign or an indicator of this general perversion, wherein, as Lindzen puts it, the legitimate role of science as a powerful mode of inquiry is replaced by the pretence of science to a position of political authority. Montford’s is a story no less of how a leading institution of the scientific revolution—the sober, reasonable, disinterested, oh-so-Anglican model for the European Enlightenment—after preserving its integrity for so long, has only recently, and grossly, perverted itself with the promotion of one opinion in particular, namely: the ‘consensus’ opinion on the ‘settled science’ behind the need for urgent action to mitigate a global climate catastrophe.
Science v. George W Bush
It was during the first 5 years of the millennium, under the presidency of Lord Robert May, that Mortford witnesses the Royal Society pitching its long-won reputation into the fray. This occurs during a time of heightened tension at what can now be seen as a turning point in the controversy over climate change. Early in 2001 the 3rd IPCC report was proclaimed far and wide, conclusive and alarming, under the banner of the Hockey Stick Graph. To keep up the momentum for global action on climate change the United States was desperately needed on side and signed up to Kyoto. But this was not to be.
George W. Bush had already expressed his doubts about the scientific consensus during the 2000 election campaign, yet he pledged to impose controls on carbon emissions. But after being declared winner of the (bitterly disputed) ballot, humiliating the vanquished environmentalist Albert Gore, he soon reneged on his emissions controls promise and proclaimed his outright opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.
The Royal Society responded to this major setback with an extraordinary show of force. It organised a joint statement of 16 national scientific academies declaring that such doubts were not justified. The statement strongly encouraged the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of the consensus scientific view as expressed in the latest IPCC report. And it closed by declaring that ‘the balance of the scientific evidence demands urgent action to mitigate climate change.’ This would not be the last time that a Royal Society President would throw strident, urgent and timely declarations into the controversy, and there would be other joint statements, often on the eve of major inter-governmental meetings (e.g., the G8 in 2005, and in 2007, with the Met Office in 2009, with the president of NAS in 2010).
Such formal documents railing against unnamed doubters were backed up by the President with speeches and interviews explicitly targeting Bush as ‘misguided,’ as ‘ignoring’ the scientific evidence, and ‘overruling’ his own scientific advice— a claim that cause a run-in with the US National Academy. Lord May repeatedly insisted that the scientific debate is over: not only is the continuing warming and its anthropogenic attribution ‘undeniably real;’ but the science is also settled on the need for mitigation by the reduction of carbon emissions. Any suggestion of doubts about so much as one underlying premise is unworthy of scientific attention. These doubts have no credibility because they are propagated by a vocal but small ‘denial lobby,’ ‘half crackpots,’ and funded by the hydrocarbon industry, similar to the tobacco lobby on cancer, or those that still deny that HIV causes AIDs. With the term ‘denial’ also evoking holocaust denial, such emotive ad hominem was poisoning the political debate, and Montford notices how such language is carefully avoided by many of the most vocal academic critics of scepticism. This makes it all the more surprising to hear it from the president of such an esteemed, ancient, scientific institution as the Royal Society.
Science v. The Doubters
Indeed, it did seem that Lord May truly believed there was no genuine scientific debate, and that behind the Fleet Street rabble rousing was nothing if not vested interest. In his enthusiasm for the cause, he dragged the name of the Royal Society head long into the controversy. Right from the start of his presidency there was no looking back—the clout of the Royal Society would be used again and again to undermine opponents credibility and their supposed support base.
Towards the end of Lord May’s 5-year term, while Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick were making waves with their audit of the Hockey Stick, the Royal Society was compiling a set of arguments they found to be misleading the public, and they challenged them in a layman’s Guide to Facts and Fiction about Climate Change. This pamphlet begins by stating its controversial purpose:
It has become fashionable in some parts of the UK media to portray the scientific evidence that has been collected about climate change and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities as an exaggeration.
To persuade the reasonable public against this ‘fashionable’ ‘fiction,’ 12 ‘misleading arguments’ are laid out with responses drawing mostly upon the authority of the latest IPCC report.
Early on, the pamphlet quotes a study finding that ¾ of recent peer-review literature is on side. It then leaves no account for a significant minority of papers (25%) that are instead rhetorically dismissed in the next sentence with the invocation of those with malicious intent, namely: those seeking to ‘undermine’ climate change science and the IPCC, some ‘funded by US oil industry’ and who appear ‘motivated by opposition’ to Kyoto and to urgent action on carbon emissions. With this summary dismissal of scientific doubt complete, what is striking about what follows in this Guide is how the internal contradictions present great barriers to reasonable persuasion.
Perhaps most confusing is that the supposed rebuttals often agree with the so-called misleading arguments. This is most striking with Argument #5, which states that ‘there is no reliable way of predicting how temperatures will change in the future’, and it goes on to question claims made on the basis of model projections. The response opens by saying right out ‘that climate change is complex and not easy to predict.’ Agree! But then it outlines how models are used to inform the alarming scenarios. Then it returns again to the uncertainty ‘openly acknowledged’ by the IPCC report—which says that ‘the impacts of climate change cannot be uniquely determined for individual emissions scenarios.’ The rebuttal finishes by pointing out that those questioning the predictive power of the climate models have not themselves offered alternative models—which seems to be saying: Don’t criticise us if you can’t do better yourself! Unfortunately, most readers would know that is not how science works.
This confused piece on climate modelling is followed by misleading arguments against attribution of extreme weather events (#6), of sea level rise (#8) and questioning the evidence of polar ice melt (#7). These are all stated in terms of the evidence for what has already happened. Each response begins with more or less agreement that there is reason for doubt or uncertainty upon the factual evidence of what has already happened, but then it launches into lengthy statements saying in effect, Yes…but the models predict disaster in the future! The reader is left to wonder: If the Guide finds accord with the sceptics on the ‘facts’, then what is this ‘fiction’?
With the adversarial overlay clearly out of sympathy with the content, one wonders why the Society chose to present this information to the public in this way. If the aim were to quell inflamed public bickering, to find accord through sober reasoning, then this is not the way to go about it. And this is Montfords main concern with the Guide: ‘The Society managed to sow discord where there was in fact a measure of harmony’ says Montford. ‘This approach might have been useful for the purpose of maintaining political pressure’ but, Montford says, it did little ‘to advance the public understanding of the science, or to enhance the reputation of the Royal Society or British science.‘
Two years later, in June 2007 the Guide was revised with a much classier offering under a new name. Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide contains a new set of more elegant ‘misleading arguments,’ and the responses to each of them are nicely structured. Whereas in the first version these responses were often little more than loosely linked slabs of quotations from the IPCC reports, this time the text is unencumbered by quotations or footnotes. While this makes it easier to read, it does also throw the authority back onto the Royal Society. In fact, this is clearly the intent, for whereas the earlier version gives the names of the lead authors (Wallace and Haughton), the new introduction begins by proclaiming that ‘The Royal Society has produced the overview…’; and ‘…the Society – as the UK’s national academy of science – responds [to the arguments].’
The Royal Society was now pamphleteering controversy upon its own authority without any direct references to any science, scientists or evidence. This step into a domain of literature against which it had once defined itself was motivated by another major setback for the movement attempting to effect a political response to the climate emergency. A few months earlier the television documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle was screened on Channel 4. While its impact on public opinion is hard to gauge, the defences against this threat were comprehensive. Lord Rees, who had taken over from Lord May in 2005, did his bit by issuing a statement the morning after the first screening, and another after the UK broadcasting regulator’s response to an avalanche of complaints. Rees described the documentary as itself a ‘swindle,’ admonishing the producers that to develop programs in order to ‘court controversy’ was one thing, but ‘to misrepresent the evidence on such an important issue was irresponsible.’
The Swindle was not the first attempt to break through the wall of public propaganda in the UK government media with a (more or less prejudiced) survey of the evidence (cf. from back in 1990, The Greenhouse Conspiracy). But now such challenges only served to increase the fortification. After The Swindle, the walls were now covered with placards proclaiming the fortress of science as impenetrable. These included the American Physics Association posting a policy that declared the evidence of global warming ‘incontrovertible.’ In all this, one would be forgiven for presuming that (for whatever reason) members and fellows had fallen rank & file into line behind their leadership. However, soon after such placards were posted and such pamphlets were distributed, rumblings from within the ranks became audible over the wall. Members of the American Physics Association protested the proclaimed ‘consensus’ as fake (see this editorial, and later a protest of 160, but the APS holds firm). Some prominent members even made a public show of resigning (Lewis, Giaever), complaining that the very idea of ‘incontrovertible science’ is an oxymoron anathema to science. And in the Royal Society also: concerns had began to develop among the Fellows that the Society’s representation of the evidence in its own pamphlet was, itself, irresponsible.
In May 2010 it was revealed that a group of 43 Fellows had approached the Council with their concerns. Montford explains:
In the autumn of 2009, the rebels put in a request to Council asking that the Climate Change Controversies be rewritten in order to abide by the Society’s famous motto of ‘nullius in verba’. This was necessary, they said, in order to protect the reputation of the Society—its position on climate change did not reflect the balance of informed opinion on the subject. They also felt that the Society should review its processes for arriving at public statements.
When the BBC’s Roger Harrabin broke the story, he reported that ‘one Fellow who said he was not absolutely convinced of the dangers of CO2’ objected to this sentence in the Guide’s introduction:
This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming.
The Fellow’s objection was:
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 the Royal Society. Some of us were very upset about that.
Harrabin also reported that:
Climate change doubters among the Society’s Fellows’ say that in their anxiety to support government action, the academies failed to distinguish between “hired guns” and genuine scientific agnostics wanting to explore other potential causes of climate change.
The Cosmic Rays
In respect of both these criticisms, the treatment of one argument in the Guide stands out. Misguided Argument #7 gives that ‘The climate is actually affected by cosmic rays.’ This is a cryptic reference to a complex hypothesis put forward by Henrik Svensmark, which proposes that variations in levels of cosmic rays impacting on the atmosphere affects variations in cloud formation. The latest version of this theory had been published in a peer review journal in January 2007, and it was the subject of vigorous scientific debate throughout that year and beyond.
The likely reason this ‘cosmic rays’ hypothesis was given special attention in the Guide was the fact that it had entered the popular controversy through the publication of a book (The Chilling Stars by Svensmark & Calder), and through coverage in The Great Global Warming Swindle. In July 2007 a rebuttal of the paper appeared, and this was widely heralded in the media as answering The Swindle. The papers quoted a statement by the Royal Society that was entirely ‘on message’ when it slipped into talk of ‘a small minority…seeking to deliberately confuse the public’ and ‘misrepresenting the science.’ This treatment by the Society of a theory currently in contention among scientific peers was, according to Montford, ‘a remarkable step.’
Science Under Attack
In the decade or so since Lord May took the presidency of the Society there were other attempts to influence the public controversy also documented by Montford. These include a letter sent to senior members of the UK press by one of the authors of the first Guide just after its publication. In this letter the Society’s Vice President, David Wallace, appeals for vigilance against ‘individuals on the fringes, sometimes with financial support from the oil industry, who have been attempting to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.’ And there was also the sustained campaign during 2006 against one of these financial supporters, ExxonMobil, conducted, not by activist vigilantes, but under the imprimatur of the Royal Societies by its press officer Bob Ward. And finally, there was the television documentary presented by the current president of the Society and screened in early 2011, soon after his induction.
Science under Attack begins with the new President, Sir Paul Nurse, introducing a discussion of the general onslaught against science, but the show goes on to give the great bulk of its attention to attacks on climate change science, and especially the attacks sustained in the climategate controversy. The glossing of the real issues, the non sequitur, a rambling bricolage of ideas; this results in a very poor showing for the Royal Society by BBC documentary standards. With no apparent attempt to present or even legitimate those on the other side of the debate, Science Under Attack launches Nurse into his presidency reaffirming the attitude of the previous two presidents. As one of his Society Fellows put it above, this attitude presumes that ‘anyone who questions climate science is malicious.’ But they are malicious not just against climate science, for they are attacking science itself.
Part 2 will discuss this recent involvement in public policy by the Royal Society in the context of its historical involvement in science policy decision-making.