Monday, 7 April 2014

Why public confidence in science is eroded? Or not.

Christopher Booker once edited Private Eye.  In a palace coup, he was ousted by Richard Ingrams and the Eye went in the direction it did, creating the magazine as it stands today. Who knows where Booker might have taken it.

Not in a pro-science one. Booker, like his chum Delingpole, is a Hums graduate with a disdainful eye for science. Booker doesn't think asbestos is particularly dangerous, stating that white asbestos is chemically identical to talcum powder. He doesn't agree on the consensus line on BSE or passive smoking.  He is in intelligent design creationist and, to complete the trinity, is wrong on climate change too. To show how wrong, he has spoken at one the the Heartland Institute's denier conventions.

So it is no big surprise that Booker is a serial denier on the subject of the IPCC. He doesn't like the,, with the same venom that he reserves for the EU. And he's done it again.

Since the IPCC published its latest report last week, all sorts of deniers have lined up to say it is alarming or actually it agrees with us on adaptation. Well, not really the latter because the report on mitigation is stilly come and not really the former because scientists and governments are quite conservative.  Things actually could be very very bad indeed.

Booker, on the other hand, peruses the report and proclaims that the scales have fallen from all our eyes in his latest pile of stinking rubbish at the Sunday Telegraph: How did the IPCC's alarmism take everyone in for so long?  (Archived). Answer: because it is using the best established scientific research to come to this conclusion. It not the result of a bunch of mates having an argument down the pub, which is presumably how Booker thinks we can arrive at these things.

That was yesterday.  Today in the Daily Telegraph, former editor Charles Moore uses his Monday book review slot to give a personal and wrong view of climate change.  The game is up for climate change believers (archived) reviews a book by Rupert Darwall that is a year old and written by a man who, let's face it, hasn't the scientific capacity to understand the scientific argument.  So the book isn't about the science but is a history of the argument, told from a not entirely denier point of view but not one that would get him invited to a Met Office Christmas party.

Moore, like Booker, hasn't had it particularly hard. Public school, Oxbridge, early success, degree in English.   Hmm, degree in English (and history in Moore's case).  Haven't we seen that sort of CV somewhere before.  What is it about English graduates in the UK that makes them so eminently qualified to comment on science?  The answer is, of course, nothing, but there seems a boil to lance and I aim to do a bit of pricking.

You know how out of his depth Moore is when he says:
The theory of global warming is a gigantic weather forecast for a century or more
Of course, it isn't, but let's not let a good sentence get in the way of the truth.  The theory of global warming is physics pure and simple, what happens to the energy of the Sun that the Earth intercepts.  It is experimentally verified that carbon dioxide and other gases interfere with the energy balance.  Not, I think, that Moore knows that:
Proper science studies what is – which is, in principle, knowable – and is consequently very cautious about the future – which isn’t.  
 Oh, dear.  The effects of climate change are knowable, not just in principle and I would hope that Moore has a better feeling for the future because science can tell you to within extremely tiny levels of uncertainty lots of things about the future.  It can, for instance, tell you how to land a car sized robot on the surface of Mars, or how much fuel you need to put in a plane to fly across the Atlantic.  Those are predictions about the future made on the basis of science.  You won't get that level of confidence reading Darwall's book.

Moore betrays something stunningly ignorant:
Like most of those on both sides of the debate, Rupert Darwall is not a scientist.
He's just plain wrong there.  Most of the people on the climate change is caused by the effect of human activity side are scientists.  There is an undisputable (at least amongst people who actually think) consensus that says approximately 97% of peer reviewed published research on climate change says humans are causing it.  And that work is done, almost entirely, by scientists.  So, guess what, Charles Moore?  You're wrong.  But of course it helps your case to state, however falsely, that actually this isn't an argument involving scientists because it makes you sound more valid.  Nope, you don't get an opinion on this.  You only get to make conclusions based on the evidence.  I don't see you, or Darwall, doing this.  Or Booker.  Or Delingpole (interpreter of others' interpretations).

This is a lengthy preamble to my main point so perhaps I ought to come to it.  There has long been a science denial industry trying to undermine the conclusions that science arrives at.  Anyone can do it.  Just question any one of a number of things: the qualifications of the scientists, the quality of the data, the affiliations of the scientists or their institutions.  You can demand that the results are ever more precise, or accurate, or whatever. 

Or you can just ignore what the science says.

We know, and it is well documented by Naomi Oreskes, that scientific doubt has been the task of a number of individuals and organisations for more than half a century.  Such activity is likely to have cost lives, possibly millions of them, by denying firstly the link between smoking and cancer and then the link between passive smoking and cancer.  Many of the same names and organisations later moved into the climate change denial industry.  Using the same methods.

Unfortunately, newspapers don't sell on good news.  They sell on bad news.  They sell on conflict and journalists are sometimes lazy.  Newspapers that were once papers of record have increasingly found themselves having to compete with the entertainment heavy tabloids.  The London Daily Telegraph is no stranger to this. Not for nothing do many call it the Daily Mailograph or the Daily Hellograph.

But it also has a serious part to play in undermining science.  The Daily Telegraph played a role that it might regret in the MMR/autism (scroll down) scare that was entirely manufactured with the aim of screwing some money out of vaccine manufacturers.  When newspapers go after politicians with demands of resign, perhaps the despicable nature of some journalists themselves might require a closer examination in their own mirror.  A mirror held up by jdc.

Scientists work very hard for what are often pretty poor returns, in short term contracts and don't always get the rewards.  Few scientists reach a high position.  Very few become famous.  Very few indeed become household names.  There is only one Stephen Hawking, a handful more Neil DeGrasse Tysons, Brian Coxs, and a bunch of others.  But not many.  And science journalism itself is a shrinking profession, with fewer and fewer science stories being covered by journalists with a scientific training.  And many stories meet with vociferous criticism because the need to sow doubt in things like vaccination and climate change is an imperative.

Would straightforward reporting of science be helpful?  I believe so.  Many science journalists can make the science a human story, or transmit the import of the discovery, and there is a desire amongst the general public to have science stories in the news.  The discovery of the Higgs Boson or the confirmation of inflation in the extremely early universe are recent headliners.  Given the chance, good science journalism should trump the denial machine.  But it requires strong editors and ones with the scientific ability to see wheat and know it is wheat, and see chaff and chuck it away. 

And therein lies a problem.  Charles Moore, English and history graduate, was an editor of a major national newspaper and yet palpably hasn't the scientific skills to understand a complex scientific story.  He gets it wrong.  The lack of a proper scientific training for newspaper editors, for news in general, means that bad stories get through.  It is a common theme on the right of centre British newspapers.  Those think tanks and policy groups can feed stories to newspapers they know will give them a warm welcome.  Let's not forget that the Sunday Telegraph gave Lord Monckton acres of space to make a scientific idiot of himself.

Why should the public lose confidence in science?  Because they are told to.  They are told by people who they reckon are educated, that there is doubt, or something is wrong, or actually this isn't anything to do with scientists....  The answer to my question is because some people want them to.  Some people who have other agendas.  Some people who are just misguided.  Some people who are too ignorant to know the difference.  The public have a right to expect better.  Perhaps they should be better served.

Sometimes, of course, there is journalism worth its name.  Andrew Wakefield was uncovered for the person he was by the efforts of Brian Deer.  Deer was interested in the truth, smelled a rat and went looking.  He did what anyone else could have done but no one else seemed interested in doing.  Instead of buying the doubt, Deer checked.  It mattered because Wakefield and his supporters can be associated, even if not directly linked, to the illness and perhaps deaths, of hundreds, thousands.  By deliberately sowing the seed of doubt, Wakefield had created a non-issue for a sorry reason.  And some wonder why public confidence in science has diminished.  Because of people like that.

1 comment:

  1. "It not the result of a bunch of mates having an argument down the pub, which is presumably how Booker thinks we can arrive at these things."

    Booker seems to be the sort of professional contrarian who thinks the truth is always the exact opposite of what everyone else thinks. he doesn't know anything about asbestos, AGW, BSE, smoking, evolution -- but he does know what the mainstream position is on these subjects, and that he's just so much smarter for disagreeing with it.