Follow Up on Royal Society LetterSeptember 26th, 2006
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
Last week we discussed a letter from the Royal Society to ExxonMobil. The interesting discussion that followed focused on the role of scientists in general and national academies specifically in contested political issues that involve science. The issue continues to devleop. Apparently, according to Benny Peiser, the author of the Royal Society letter to ExxonMobil is no longer employed by the Royal Society. The Royal Soceity has not said anything publicly that I am aware of — eagle-eyed readers please share what you learn.
David Whitehouse, formerly with the BBC, has shared another letter with Benny Peiser, which Benny included in his CCNet mailing list today. I have reproduced Dr. Whitehouse’s letter below which provides an overview and analysis of the events of the past week.
I confess to having pulled the occasional media stunt in my time (all in the cause of good journalism of course) to get a story aired but I think that the climate change debate over the past week is a good example of how manipulating the media can result in unexpected consequences for those who hang on to the tail of this particular tiger, and frankly how some people ought to be a bit more accurate when they pontificate to the public.
As far as I can see it went like this:
Tuesday 19th September.
Posted on George Monbiot’s website and the Guardian’s website
-fire-3/) was a column which reported that the Royal Society had had enough of those spreading misinformation about climate change. Monbiot adds, “As I reveal on Newsnight (a BBC TV Current Affairs Programme) tonight, the Society has now attempted to strike at the heart of this campaign by sending its first official letter of complaint to a corporation – the oil company Exxon. And yesterday its president, Lord Rees, sent the Telegraph what must be one of the most damning letters it has ever received.”
However, Monbiot’s polemic did not air on Newsnight on Tuesday but went out on Wednesday instead. Personally, I thought it was sloppy and lacked intellectual rigour. It was what is termed an “authored” piece which means it is a personal view and not dictated by the BBC’s standards of fairness and impartiality. Nethertheless, Exxon’s request to have a similar time to put its case was turned down by Newsnight. Monbiot’s piece included a brief interview with Bob Ward, filmed at the Royal Society. It was followed by a fruitless discussion hosted by Jeremy Paxman between a scientist and a representative of a US lobby group. The most memorable thing about it was Paxman’s repeatedly telling the American chap that “you are not a
scientist.” I was rather disappointed not to see an interview with Lord Rees about his letter to the Telegraph.
Oh, by the way, Monbiot has a book to plug, “Heat – How to Stop the Planet Burning.” (I think the title is all I need to know but I will read it.)
Now I wonder if the fact that Monbiot’s Newsnight rant was a day later than he said it would be upset the choreography of this story’s emergence?
Wednesday 20th September.
The front page of the Guardian carried details of the now infamous letter by Bob Ward (Senior Manager, Policy Communication, Royal Society) referred to in Monbiot’s column which was sent to Exxon on 4th September. The Guardian Science Podcast available later described this story as an ‘exclusive!’ On the front page the Guardian mentioned no qualms about the ethics of the Royal Society’s actions.
On the BBC Today radio programme that morning there was a discussion about GM technology that involved Lord May, former Chief Scientific Advisor to H.M. Government and past President of the Royal Society. After this debate the presenter asked him about the Guardian story. To my mind Lord May’s response was extraordinary and demonstrated the problem in the debate. I wasn’t impressed by his accuracy.
Lord May said that in 2005 the science academies of the G8 nations plus India, China and Brazil said that the “basic facts of climate change are certain.” Actually they did no such thing. As Bob Ward pointed out in his letter to Exxon what the G8+ actually said was “it is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities.” To my mind the words “likely” and “most” do not equate with certainty. Lord May went on to chastise those who “misrepresent the certainties of science” presumably unaware that he had done exactly that! [For reference the IPCC say the same thing - "most of the global warming over the past 50 years is likely due to the increase in greenhouse gases - note the key words "most" and "likely."]
Lord May went on to say that the fact that “humans are changing the climate” is as certain as gravitation or evolution. I find this statement surprising even though it is an obvious one as it is recognised by all that humans are changing the climate – what is in debate is the question is the magnitude of the change. Then a spokesman for Exxon, Nick Thomas (Director Public Affairs Exxon) was brought into the discussion who stated Exxon’s position which, to my mind, sounded like a fair summary of the G8+ position and the IPCC position (we agree that the word is warming, that CO2 concentrations are increasing, that glaciers are shrinking and that CO2 emissions are certainly one of the contributors to climate change, we recognise man’s activities are responsible for climate change.) This statement didn’t quite go as far as many would wish but, given the uncertainties in the science, it was OK, I thought.
But Lord May was unconvinced. He maintained that this contradicted the US National Academy of Sciences and that what he had heard from Nick Thomas was a “misrepresentation of the facts.” Having listened to the exchange several times I have to say I think Lord May is wrong about that.
The Guardian story aired on BBC News TV throughout the day (Wednesday 20th) pretty much in the form that the Guardian had used, i.e. the Royal Society – upholder of the consensus – had had enough of lies and misinformation spread by the likes of a big bad energy company like Exxon. There the story would perhaps have lain except for the next edition of the BBC’s Today radio programme.
Thursday 21st September.
The Today programme asked if the Royal Society was right to police the scientific consensus this way. Bob Ward defended his actions. You can read the transcript of that discussion in a recent CCNet.
The coverage thereafter was different, as those who have read CCNet in recent days have seen. Dominic Lawson writing in the Independent on the 22nd wondered if the release of the Royal Society’s letter on the 20th was anything to do with Monbiot’s book?
Heaven forfend, Bob Ward wrote in a letter to the Independent on the 25th in which he says, “I can absolutely refute Lawson’s laughable suggestion that it (presumable the letter) was part of a campaign to promote George Monbiot’s new book.”
I think this is another example of the sleight of hand that Bob Ward employed in his letter to Exxon. Even if the initial impetus for the letter had nothing to do with Monbiot, it is surely stretching belief beyond credulity that its appearance on the front page of the Guardian at the same time as Monbiot’s column and Newsnight piece was unrelated!
So what was achieved?
Bob Ward made the big mistake of writing such a letter to Exxon in completely the wrong way, allowing it to be made public and becoming the topic of discussion. When a senior manager of policy communication becomes the story and not the policy itself, it is, as Alistair Campbell discovered, not a good thing. The Royal Society looks bad having tried to enforce a consensus even though, as many have pointed out, they must have been aware of the role of consensus in science. It also looks bad having sent such disgraceful (and counterproductive) letters to journalists. We also learnt that even those authorities who have scaled the august heights of science and are laden with honours are not immune to being sloppy with the facts and with a false impression of the “certainties of science.”
But perhaps the cause of science has been advanced during this week for it has forced a discussion and appraisal of how so-called sceptics are being treated in this important debate and steered the global warming debate towards a scientific course and away from the rocky shoals of you are either for us or against us. It has made many examine the role of the Royal Society in scientific debate and public relations and, perhaps most importantly, once again we have been reminded that as far a science is concerned being an authority, individual or corporate, ultimately means little.
Also Monbiot does have some words of wisdom one can take away from this mess: “Be wary of self-appointed experts.” Exactly.