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. Continue reading