Before commenting on the BBC Trust’s report into the BBC’s science coverage, I thought I’d take the trouble of reading the actual document rather than the press previews. I’m very glad I waited because the finished product is an absolute corker. Let me take you through some of my favourite moments.
The report, as you may be aware, was written by my fellow Telegraph columnist Steve Jones. Besides being a fine and engaging writer, Dr Jones is a geneticist of distinction and I would certainly never dream of questioning his judgement in his fields of expertise (notably Drosophila and snails). Fortunately, as becomes quite clear reading the report, climate science isn’t one of them.
Dr Jones sets out his ideological position fairly early on when he strives to bracket global warming “denialism” with a range of other syndromes: believing that “AIDS has nothing to do with viruses, the MMR vaccine is unsafe, complex organs could never evolve, or even that the 9/11 disaster was a US government plot.” I’d love to see his evidence for this casual slur-by-association.
The distinction he tries to make between “scepticism” (good, up to a point, he thinks) and “denialism” (bad, obviously) is in any case a straw man argument. Of all the sceptics I’ve ever met or read, not a single one has ever striven to deny that climate changes nor that modest global warming has been taking place since 1850 (when we began emerging from the Little Ice Age).
What many of these sceptics – or deniers, if you must – do question is
a) whether – and if so by how much – this warming is anthropogenic (ie human-caused)
b) whether the warming constitutes a threat – or whether its benefits might in fact far outweigh its drawbacks
c) whether this warming likely to continue or whether – as happened without human influence at the end of the Roman warm period and the Medieval warm period – it will be followed by a period of natural cooling
d) whether the drastic policy measures (tax, regulation, “decarbonisation”, the drive for renewables) being enacted to ‘combat climate change’ will not end up doing far more harm than good.
Jones concedes at one point that “A debate remains, and it deserves to be reported with as much objectivity as would any other unresolved issue.” But the apparent reasonableness here is certainly not borne out by the rest of his screed against sceptics, whom he caricatures as “proponents of the idea that global warming is a myth” – while neglecting to engage with the subtleties of the arguments mentioned above.
Sometimes, in his enthusiasm to put all these evil “deniers” in their place, Dr Jones appears to forget the basic rules of science altogether. For example, he describes how measured levels of atmospheric C02 have increased since 1959, and how “basic physics show that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas” and how “three independent sets of records of global temperature agree that 2010 was one of the three hottest years since figures were first collected.” Dr Jones might be surprised to learn the “deniers” agree with him on this. Where they differ is over a fundamental scientific concept: “Correlation is not causation.” We are, remember, emerging from the Little Ice Age. So the rise in global temperatures is perfectly explicable in terms of natural climatic cycles. Furthermore, you could reasonably argue that the theory of anthropogenic CO2 as a driver of catastrophic global warming has already been “falsified” (or, as I prefer to think of it, torpedoed below the waterline, hit in the magazine and blown out of the sea). That’s because, as even the great Dr Phil Jones of the CRU has acknowledged, “global warming” stopped in 1998 (even as anthropogenic CO2 levels, notably in China) continued to rise.
Another category error Dr Jones falls into is in his use of the Argumentum ad Verecundiam, the appeal to authority. He tells us:
The IPCC concluded that it is beyond doubt that the climate is warming and more than 90% likely that this has been driven by human activity.
And he cites an open letter to the journal Science by two hundred and fifty members of the US National Academy of Sciences:
“(T)here is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.”
But as both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn could have explained to Dr Jones, science does not advance through “consensus”; and as Einstein could have told him, science is not a numbers game. When Hitler commissioned the book 100 Authors Against Einstein, Einstein coolly replied that if he were wrong, one author would have been enough.
If Dr Jones would like to learn more about these complexities, I would be more than happy to send him a free copy of my book Watermelons. One gets the impression that he hasn’t yet had much opportunity to find out what climate realists (as we prefer to style ourselves, “deniers” being – you know – a touch Holocaust-y) actually think or properly to familiarise himself with the terms of the debate. Also, the book’s quite well-researched so it might help him avoid repeating any of those embarrassing errors he makes in the report.
Still, as I suggested at the beginning, I’m extremely grateful to Dr Jones for writing his report because it offers such a sustained and brilliant rebuttal to the threadbare notion that our state broadcaster is in any way capable of being fair and balanced.
As Biased BBC notes, it has been five years since the BBC officially abandoned all pretence that it was adopting a neutral position on “Climate Change”. In a 2007 BBC Trust policy report, it wrote:
The BBC has held a high level seminar with some of the best scientific experts (on whose and what measurement) and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of consensus.
This anti-heretic policy it has been pursuing with Torquemada-like fervour ever since. Though Dr Jones’s report argues that the BBC should from henceforward give less space to sceptics, it’s difficult to imagine quite how it could possibly do so. About the only occasion on which they have been given any air space has been on hatchet-jobs like the BBC’s feature-length assault on Lord Monckton, “Meet The Climate Sceptics”.
Dr Jones notes with concern Britain’s growing scepticism:
A poll carried out by the Cardiff University Understanding Risk Group in early 2010 showed in contrast that one in seven among the British public said that the climate is not changing and one in five that any climate change was not due to human activity. Fewer than half considered that scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.
The conclusion, however, he draws from this is not that this is a fair reflection of the lack of evidence to support CAGW theory – but that media organisations like the BBC aren’t doing enough to promote the “correct” version of reality. “The divergence between the views of professionals versus the public may be seen as evidence of a failure by the media to balance views of very different credibility. The BBC is just one voice but so many in Britain gain their understanding of science from its output that its approach to this question must be considered.”
In other words, Dr Jones thinks that the growing numbers of people in Britain (and around the world) who are sceptical of man-made global warming are victims of “false consciousness.” There speaks the authentic voice of the left-leaning cultural establishment. The BBC must be very proud: they chose the right man for the job.
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