Sunday, December 5th 2010, 2:07 PM EST
So I’m delighted to be able to put up a guest post of his on the subject of a recent drubbing he had from top celebrity particle-physicist Brian Cox. Cox (not to be confused with the scary man who played the original Hannibal Lecter) has become one of TV’s favourite science pin-ups because not only does he look a bit like a pop star but he actually was one once in D:Ream (unofficial court composers to New Labour thanks to their party anthem Things Can Only Get Better). Unfortunately, it seems, there are one or two things that our Brian doesn’t quite get about Climategate and peer review: as Durkin will now explain. (In bold, I’m afraid because I can’t be bothered to strip out all the “strongs” from html)
This year’s BBC Huw Wheldon lecture was delivered by pop star and celebrity-physicist Brian Cox, who was telling us how science should be reported on television.
Brian looks like a rebel. One of the kids. He has long hair and wears a T-shirt under his jacket. But appearances can deceive. I’ve met countless grungy greens who are every bit as censorious and freedom-hating as the most well-ironed Nazi.
And, as it turns out, Brian is about as rebellious as Captain Mainwaring. He says it’s the job of documentary makers to relay to the public science which has been approved by the scientific establishment.
He described a film of mine – The Great Global Warming Swindle – which naughtily did not tow the line, as ‘polemical cack’. Like many censors, he starts by waving the flag for free speech. Far be it from him to stifle views which are outside the mainstream. But … There were many buts.
The logic of his descent into censorship went like this (it so often does): Science is really important – just look at the need to combat global warming. Government funding is therefore vital. And television ‘has a big responsibility to get the science right’. This means television must ‘report and explain the peer-reviewed consensus accurately’ and (here it gets interesting) broadcasters must ‘avoid the maverick and eccentric at all costs.’ After all, ‘we’re dealing with the lives of our children and the future of the climate’.
He admits that his argument ‘does sound rather authoritarian’ and asks himself blithely towards the end, ‘Have I been led to an Orwellian conclusion? … I don’t know.’
I do. All the way through, there’s a sinister Orwellian ring to Cox’s style. In weasel words, he warns of ‘occasional incompatibilities between science and television’. Like Uriah Heep, says he wants to explore ‘how these might be avoided’.
His special worry is global warming. The problem appears to be this. Lots of people don’t believe it. Despite the fact that there is almost total acceptance of this ridiculous theory in the media, many ordinary people just don’t buy it. So if some scoundrel (like me) pops up and says the science behind this garbage is bunkum, the scientific establishment – Cox & Co – become furious. And I know to my cost what it’s like when they turn on you.
Cox equates scientific truth with the consensus view of the scientific establishment. His justification for doing so is the revered practice known as ‘peer review’. Cox tells us, ‘a peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial’. Now this is an extraordinarily stupid thing for anyone to say, let alone someone like Cox who likes to pretend he’s clever.
Peer review happens when an article is submitted for publication to a science journal. The editor doesn’t know whether the author is talking out of his hat or not, so he sends it out to other scientists working in the same field to (anonymously) pick holes in it. If the others say it’s fine he’ll print it. If not, he doesn’t.
Peer review is at best imperfect. At worst it’s a rather nasty form of censorship within the scientific community. Good papers are frequently rejected. Rubbish is often printed. The main problem is that scientists who do the reviewing are extremely partial to their own views. Their reputations have been built on certain theories (like global warming). Their grant funding depends on the wide acceptance of these theories. They don’t like it when folk rock the boat. So there is a tendency for the consensus to prevail against those who would shake things up.
Take the notorious ‘Hockey Stick’ scandal. A big problem for global warming theory is that, compared to temperature change over the past thousand years, today’s temperatures look perfectly normal. So a bunch of jokers came up with the ‘Hockey Stick’ graph, which suggested that temperatures were flat until the industrial revolution and then shot upwards. It’s now clear that the research was, to borrow a phrase from Cox, utter drivel (see the Wegman report and others). Nevertheless it sailed through peer-review with flying colours and was published in Nature and by the IPCC and by a thousand others. James Lovelock had it up on his wall to remind himself about fragile Gaia. Al Gore waved it about till he was red-faced. Or how about all that peer-reviewed dodgy data from East Anglia, or the countless, laughably alarmist peer-reviewed papers published since the Ice Age scare 50 years ago. Yet woe betide anyone in the media with the brass neck to point out that this peer-reviewed guff has proved to be nonsense.
Cox and his chums in the scientific establishment love to portray themselves as simple well-meaning scientific folk. But as anyone who has experienced the wrath of the scientific establishment will attest, it’s a significant political force, bullying politicians and beating up critics. The pious self-image of scientists, especially the global warmers, as guardians of the truth, is nauseating and dangerous.
Sanctimonious Cox says he himself is ‘absolutely true to science’. He says that, unlike media people, scientists are above politics.
But science is incredibly political. Whole careers are built on, and the funding of entire institutions depend on certain ‘scientific truths’, or as they should be called, ‘funding excuses’. The global warmers embrace freedom of speech and critical views like turkeys welcome Christmas.
What’s more, the political views of scientists are inevitably, profoundly coloured by their almost complete reliance on big state funding. Predictably, most of them have the trite anti-capitalist worldview that almost always go with it.
Global warming isn’t just the best funding wheeze they’ve hit upon since the Cold War. It’s also a repository for all the green, middle class anti-capitalist prejudices which are part and parcel of the Western intellectual worldview.
Cox & Co are no saints. They are not above the prejudices of the age and their class. Nor are they unaware of their own economic self-interests.
Far from giving them rights of censorship, we in the media must watch them like hawks.
Martin Durkin is a hero of mine, not just for his courage in making the first mainstream British TV programme seriously to challenge the idea of Man Made Global Warming – The Great Global Warming Swindle – but also for the equally brilliant programme he made on our eye-wateringly vast national debt, Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story.