Lamb wrap-up: Richard Scorer

My report for the GWPF, Hubert Lamb and the transformation of climate science, has generated some public comment serving to enrich the historical discussion. See at Jo Nova, Bishop Hill, WattsUpWithThat, Breitbart and Quadrant. Others have corresponded privately by email. In the following few posts I pull out for comment a few topics that caught my eye. This one is thanks to David Unwin.

In my survey of early skeptics (GWPF report p33-5), rather than mention them all (there are just too many!), I restricted myself to a very special class. These are those like Lamb, who were leaders of key research groups in the field during the 1970s. This restriction meant that I left out of consideration many leading researchers. To give just two examples, there were Reginald Newell and Richard Lindzen, both at MIT in the 1980s when the scare hit, and both openly skeptical from the beginning. (For more about a few of the other leading skeptics, see in this book.) However, in the context of Lamb’s skepticism, there is one contemporary who might qualify, but, if not, then he is certainly worth remembering.

Richard Scorer portrait, Source: WeatherVolume 66, Issue 11, page 311, November 2011

Richard Scorer (Source)

Richard Scorer (1919-2011) led a small atmospheric research group in the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College during the 1970s. In 1986 he became president of the Royal Meteorological Society and was active in that rôle through to 1998. Scorer is a nice balance to Lamb. Lamb’s interest in historical evidence of past climates too easily associates him with the past—with the old descriptive way of climatology. Whereas Scorer was very much a part of the movement towards climatology as a physical science. As a young man during the Second World War, Scorer took some overseas posts with the Met Office before returning to Cambridge to study mathematics and then complete his PhD in physical meteorology. He then took up a position in the Meteorological Department at Imperial College, before moving to the Department of Mathematics, where he led an atmospheric research group (specializing in pollution) during the 1970s. A pioneer in the physics of the atmosphere, especially of convection currents and clouds, his great skill was with mathematics. But he was also a committed empiricist. Throughout his research career he maintained strong associations with the glider pilots whom he educated about the physics of thermals, but the flow of information went both ways.

Why the greenhouse theory is growing far too quickly, R S Scorer, The Guardian, 9Jan87

Richard Scorer’s letter appeared in The Guardian, 9Jan87, shortly after he was elected president of the Royal Met Society. (click to enlarge)

In January 1987, a letter appeared in The Guardian by the new president of the Royal Met Society under the heading Why the greenhouse theory is growing far too quickly. Scorer wanted to correct the impression in the media of what constituted ‘informed’ scientific opinion on the subject. He explained that the predicted warming is based on models, but informed opinion finds these models unreliable because they do not make adequate provision for the feedback mechanism that keeps the earth’s temperature stable. The atmosphere has mostly been produced by the biosphere, he claimed, it is continuously cycled by it, maintaining its main constituents at a constant composition (something that James Lovelock was also emphasizing at the time). Yet the models do not take this into account. ‘Scientists,’ he says, know the limitations of the models and ‘the best informed are generally the least worried‘. But anyway, even if there were some  warming in the future, the overall consequences are likely to be beneficial, he says.

The Royal Met Society had its headquarters in Bracknell, across town from the Met Office headquarters, and this published skepticism of its new president would have stood in stark contrast to the views of the Met Office head, John Houghton. Later in 1987 the planning began for the IPCC, where Houghton came to play a leading role. Indeed, due to Houghton’s leadership of its first scientific assessment, this was dominated by UK scientists at the Met Office and CRU.

A much earlier publication by Scorer is perhaps more interesting in that it places the CO2 scare in the context of other pollution anxieties during the mid-1970s. Back in the 1960s, Scorer’s research led to various atmospheric pollutants, and he was already an expert and research leader when great public concern arose during the early 1970s. Scorer was involved as an expert in the shaping of the clean air legislation.  And he was a committed environmentalist. However, he was also quick to criticize positions that were more speculative or plainly unscientific. (I understand this is on display in a book, as yet unseen, that he published in 1977, Clever Moron). At this time weather modification research and grand speculation was at its height. Scorer was skeptical on the grounds that the forces were beyond us, unless we could find trigger points, and none had been found. But, as a pollution scientist, environmental scares where becoming a great concern for him. In the summer of 1975 he published an article in New Scientist with the title The danger of environmental jitters.

The danger of environmental jitters by Richard Scorer, New Scientist, 26Jun75 (extract only)

In the early days of the ‘Carbon Dioxide question’ Scorer placed it in the context of preceding environmental scares. New Scientist, 26Jun75 (Full article)

This essay ranges widely across the landscape of environmental concerns to place the emerging CO2 scare in the context of ‘an epidemic of environmental scares’. Scorer notes that a new ethic has arisen where ‘we should not take a risk if harmful effects are predicted scientifically unless we can disprove the theory in question‘. This is pretty much what passes today as the argument for action on the precautionary principle, and it could be applied to any scientific postulation, however absurd. Scorer likens this new ethic to ‘the church’s demand that we should believe a miracle on the say-so of a simpleton on the ground that no one had proved that it never happened‘. His finishing quote—The fault dear Brutus is not in the stars but in ourselves—finds the resemblance of the new model-based foreboding with the old horoscope-based calculations of catastrophe.

For more on the life of Richard Scorer (but not his scepticism!) see the obituary in Weather and a RoyMetSoc interview from 1987)

UNDATE: March 2015

Reading Scorer’s Clever Moron brings into focus a particular perspective on 1970s environmental science that is worth expanding a little more…

Science for Policy

When science is called to inform policy it is thought to be concerned with remedies and it is expected to expedite answers. As Scorer says in the New Scientist essay, it is as if a scientific assessment ‘were an engineering exercise confidently expecting to achieve a design‘. Whereas ‘every scientist knows that his work creates new awareness of more ignorance‘.  The inconclusive nature of scientific work means that policy makers should be cautious in jumping to conclusions based on the latest science. It is silly, says Scorer,…

…to let decisions hang upon the very latest measurements. It takes time for the significance of newly known facts to be appreciated fully enough to be the basis for an important decision.

A Malthusian and a skeptic

These days, among climate skeptics, the 1960s revival of concerns about population explosion is often associated with credulity to environmental scares generally. Sometimes climate alarmism is seen as rooted in Malthusianism. This might be true, but we should also recognize that in the 1970s there were Malthusians who remained (as Lomborg would say) ‘skeptical environmentalists’. One example was the prominent Australian scientist-bureaucrat John Farrand: in his book title, Don’t Panic, Panic!, the Don’t Panic refers to a myriad of environmental scares, while the Panic! refers to the population explosion. Scorer does not call for panic, and nor does he see an obvious solution, but he does see all these various scares as distractions from the real and present danger of population explosion. Scorer’s main concern with exploding population is the poverty that it perpetuates. Indeed, he argues that it is not wealth that leads to low population growth, but vise versa. The technological successes of the industrial revolution may have brought wealth but it has also brought poverty. Indeed, there are more people in the world today in miserable poverty than the entire world population before the revolution began. Rather controversially, Scorer says that it is not so much that we should ‘save the children’ of impoverished societies, but we should endeavor that there are fewer of them. A Malthusian indeed!

Weather modification

A curiosity of the widespread interest in weather modification during the 1960s and 1970s is the multiplicity of the outlandish schemes circulating as rumor, in the boasting of political leaders and on the backs of envelopes; and yet there was a scarcity of real attempts at their application. In this extended quote, Scorer ventures an explanation:

It is argued that if we could control the weather and the climate we could water the deserts and prevent floods, snowstorms and hurricanes. The advantages would be incalculable. Therefore, continues the argument, it is not extravagant to spend, say, $50 million on research into weather control. There are large areas of the USA that could be opened up and support a much greater population than at present, and the resources of the surrounding areas would be enough to provide the necessary services. Equally, the wealth in oil in the Middle East is clearly enough to support any efforts necessary to make the vast expanses of desert blossom as gardens.

This discussion of weather control is spoiled by two other considerations: the defence departments would like to keep such powers secret so that they could be used as a weapon of war, and the lawyers, sociologists and politicians foresee great problems in human relationships in a situation in which one farmer, state or country uses weather modification to their own advantage and perhaps as a consequence to the detriment of another. And before this discussion has proceeded very far news reporters are arguing about how much the Americans used weather modification as a weapon in Vietnam, and international conferences take place to discuss the economic, legal and political consequences of weather modification. All have quite lost sight of the fact that no weather modification is in prospect. They have entered the world of science fiction and are discussing it because if it were possible it would be a big and powerful business. Anyone in a defence department who appreciated the limitations would try to pretend that effective weather modification was within their power in order to mislead any potential enemies. But it is all alchemy: some clouds can be modified as a result of a considerable effort; therefore, it is argued, we are on the verge of modifying the weather; when I smelt and refine copper I get a small quantity of gold, therefore if I go on doing it I will soon turn all the copper into gold. An alchemist was always in danger of being abducted or murdered as long as his alleged powers were believed and those who believe in weather control can see great social problems arising from the exploitation of this power. Science fiction can produce much worse dangers than weather control, and there is no clear boundary in the minds of the lay public between possible technology and fiction, so great has been recent technological success. (p63-4)

3 thoughts on “Lamb wrap-up: Richard Scorer

  1. I fully agree with Hunter (and can’t believe I missed this when you first posted back in Feb., Bernie … where were my mouse and/or my eyes anyway, eh?!)

    Hard to believe that Scorer wrote this a little over forty years ago … and much as I hate to sound like a pessimist, it seems to me that in no small measure it is thanks to the many subsequent pies into which Houghton has dipped his fingers over the years which set the precedent for the foggy mess in which we have subsequently become immersed.

    Certainly Houghton is not the only one to blame – but perhaps he set the precedent which far too many have followed. Not the least of which are the current Pope’s pronouncements, IMHO.

    Never let it be said that – whatever the populist message of the hour, day, week, month or year might be – “recycling” has not served the advocates well, eh?!

    YMMV, but I find it sadly appalling that so few (if any!) lessons have been learned in the intervening forty years.

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