April 30, 2007
The Swindle Letter
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science + Politics | The Honest Broker
Some of you will be aware that a TV film entitled "The Great Global Warming Swindle" was produced by a company called Wag TV and shown on UK TV. The show, which I have not seen, purportedly debunks the science behind climate change. When aired it generated the sort of tempest in a teapot reaction that so often characterizes these sorts of things.
But subsequently, Bob Ward, formerly a spokesperson for the Royal Society and now in a similar role for a catastrophe modeling firm, RMS, Inc., organized a open letter calling for Wag TV, and the film's producer Martin Durkin, to cease and desist plans to disseminate the show via DVD. The letter has stirred up a debate about free speech and the role of scientists in political debates. Mr. Ward explained the letter as follows:
"Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements. Somebody has to stand up for the public interest here."
This episode is similar in some ways to Mr. Ward's efforts when employed by the Royal Society to silence ExxonMobil using the same strategy.
I have a different reaction to this episode than I did to the Royal Society letter to ExxonMobil. Then I argued that the Royal Society was acting inappropriately, given its mission. In this case I take no issue with the appropriateness of Mr. Ward's actions, I just think that they are wrongheaded. The difference is that the scientists organized by Mr. Ward in this case are speaking on their own with the support of a number of advocacy groups. They are not using the authority of the Royal Society, or any other public interest group, to advance their special interests. This is power politics pure and simple in the public arena.
And from that standpoint, I think that Mr. Ward's letter will prove ineffective with respect to the goals that he seeks, and most likely will have the opposite effect to that intended. In such circumstances, I recall how sales of Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist quadrupled after it was criticized by scientists. A link in the comments here in a previous thread from Francis Sedgemore, who I have not met perviously, points to some of his strong, but on target comments, which I stitch together from his two relevant blog posts:
You can take it that I have little time for Mr Durkin or his junk science film, and there should be no need for me to rehash the arguments against it. . .
This is spot on. When members of the scientific community call for silencing of others in political debates, at best it demonstrates that they believe that they cannot win arguments on their merits, and at worst is demonstrates a complete disregard for democracy and the ability of the public to participate in important political debates. Positioning oneself n opposition to fundamental principles of democracy is always a losing proposition.Posted on April 30, 2007 10:53 AM
I think there is at least one reason to smile about the silly media campaign by Mr Ward and his fellow climate activists. It would appear that even parts of the liberal media had had enough of this type of smear against fellow journalists - and are starting to ignore this kind of scientific intimidation.
Yesterday, Germany's left-of-centre SPIEGEL TV broadcast a critical programme on climate alarmism with a rather sensationalist title: "Die Mär von der Klimaerwärmung" (The fairy tale of global warming).
Among the people interviewed by Spiegel reporters were both climate sceptics and nonskeptical heretics: Hans von Storch, John Christy, Augusto Mangini, Josef Reichholf, Fred Singer and Lord Monckton.
For those of your readers well-versed with German, the Spiegel film is avaliable online at
Over to you, Mr Ward. Somebody has to stand up against free speech for misleading science documentaries! It's a good old tradition in Germany and was only relaxed a few years ago.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at April 30, 2007 03:57 PM
What a piece of work is Ward !
Shown the door by the RS after his ham-handed attempt to throttle funding of dissent linkable to lobbyists , he's landed a very lucrative post as one himself.
One wonders who's sitting at his old desk in St James's?
Posted by: Russell Seitz at April 30, 2007 03:58 PM
Does the Royal society have a PR office? If so, what is their objective; to promote the society and its work, or get it headlines?
These heavy-handed reactions to nine-day wonders like the 'swindle' serve to give it more kudos, and make them look faintly silly.
There's more to it than this, though. It's a shame you didn't see the show. It is as misleading and deceitful a polemic as any you would wish to see. It contains no recognisable science and promotes a cheap conspiracy theory, that the 'West' is using climate change as a means of suppressing the disempowered of the world. That it might deceive the public into thinking that GW is a hoax makes it no more morally suspect than your average 'fact-based' Hollywood product. But would you promote 'The Day After Tomorrow' as scientific evidence of an imminent ice age? Would you want to see it promoted as such in schools? (This has been suggested of the 'swindle').
What is of concern is that such programmes as the 'swindle' do have an impact on audiences, if only for a short time, and if only to confuse them about the facts. The best to be done about such trash is to ignore it and watch it hit the discount shelves at the rental shop.
I agree with Benny that free speech is crucially important. I don't think he needs to compare the Royal Society to Nazi Germany, however; this is too much. To me, the whole story is just another example of scientists not quite getting it right, which matters more and more these days, and some dubious film maker doing his job, which seems to involve avoiding reality at any cost.
Posted by: Fergus Brown at April 30, 2007 04:56 PM
Just for clarification: I did not compare the Royal Society to Nazi Germany. I accused Mr Ward of advocating media censorship in the name of science and truth.
In the name of progress, science and equality, the same totalitarian ideology was practised in the German Democratic Republic until fairly recently (that is until 1990). That was my reference point.
If all science documentaries that are selective, inaccurate or misleading were to be banned, there wouldn't be many shown on TV. The attempts to suppress TGGWS reflects much more badly on the integrity and judgment of campaign scientists than on the quality of the documentary which is debatable.
What ever happened to the defense of liberty? "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
Posted by: Benny Peiser at May 1, 2007 02:00 AM
"When members of the scientific community call for silencing of others in political debates, at best it demonstrates that they believe that they cannot win arguments on their merits, and at worst is demonstrates a complete disregard for democracy and the ability of the public to participate in important political debates. Positioning oneself n opposition to fundamental principles of democracy is always a losing proposition."
Roger, my own pet objection is that neither you, Bob Ward, Benny Peiser or others here seem to understand what "free speech" or "fundamental principles of democracy" actually MEAN in the context of Ward's open letter to Durkin.
Since Durkin is NOT the UK government, a REQUEST by Ward and the scientists co-signing the letter asking him to correct his own video before publishing at a dvd is self-evidently NOT an attempt at government censorship.
Is Ward's letter useful to Durkin in promoting his video? Surely. Does it serve some other purpose, such as creating a record of inaccuracies in the video, supported by thirty+ UK climate scientists? I suppose so. Are Bob Ward and his co-signers squarely within their rights to prepare this open letter? Certainly. But does the PR victory that Durkin can claim outweigh the benefits of creating a record of inaccuracies in the video? Who knows.
The letter does NOT call for silencing others, does NOT demonstrate that "they believe that they cannot win arguments on their merits" (did you miss the specific disagreements on matters of fact that the attachment enumerated?), and does NOT demonstrate "a complete disregard for democracy and the ability of the public to participate in important political debates."
Sometimes the heavy rhetoric guns are needed, but is this really one of those times?
Posted by: TokyoTom at May 1, 2007 02:37 AM
Benny: Apologies; I stand corrected. Here is another example where I read into your comment something which was not there. It's easy to do. I'll still take issue, though, that Ward's letter is a 'smear' against Durkin. I also suspect that few journalists are that interested in defending him; he is a bit of a 'standalone'.
Posted by: Fergus Brown at May 1, 2007 04:11 AM
"If all science documentaries that are selective, inaccurate or misleading were to be banned, there wouldn't be many shown on TV."
A capital suggestion, , Benny , but what foundation is going to sponsor productions devoid of polemic intent with an average running time of four hours ?
Here, not for the faint of heart, is a link to
Posted by: Russell Seitz at May 1, 2007 05:14 AM
What inaccuracies? Watch it for yourself. Following your link to RC one sees that the flaws presented in the programme are apparently:
Sum total; one actual error, 2 truths argued away by RC using extremely weak theories, 2 feeble disagreements by RC and one scientist not actually retracting his words but regretting having said them.
Other blogs have complained that Mann's hockey stick graph wasn't used and that a previous IPCC graph, showing the MWP was shown instead. RC didn't mention that which is probably wise if your point is about factual errors. Who now says that the MWP didn't exist? Mann himself? Oh apparently the new line is that it was a regional phenomeonon. Hadley centre disagree though.
Any unbiased assessment should conclude that the swindle program has far less errors than the Al Gore film. The trouble is that bias is everywhere. Presenting an alternative view that the sun is to blame is not really that controversial: It is a perfectly valid viewpoint which everyone should be allowed to see and disagree with if they like.
Posted by: JamesG at May 1, 2007 05:59 AM
The open letter states that "...it is in the public interest for adequate quality control to be exercised over information that is disseminated to the public to ensure that it does not include major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence and interpretations of it by researchers." The signatories also complain that the DVD is not subject to the legal restrictions imposed on TV programme makers to be even-handed and careful with the facts.
Like Bob Ward, I complained to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom about Durkin's documentary. I did so not because I object to the line taken by Durkin, but rather because Durkin offered no space for opinions contrary to his own. The documentary was pure polemic subsidised by the British taxpayer.
But Ward is going further than this, both in his open letter and in discussions surrounding it. Ward has made it perfectly clear that, in his opinion, free speech does not extend to disseminating errors of scientific fact, and that the DVD should either be corrected of all its errors prior to launch, or the sale stopped. As for "quality control", it is not clear who would be the adjudicators. Even if Ward et al. are right about the science – and I am convinced they are – this is not a proper way for scientists to behave in public.
Others have compared this incident with what occurred when Ward was employed as a press officer at the Royal Society. I was also unhappy with that implied threat, but the circumstances were different, and, in any case, the Royal Society is an independent and not a statutory body. As long as they keep within the rules set by the Charity Commission, senior members and officials are at liberty to express personal opinions and prejudices, just as the rest of us are free to accept or reject them.
My principal objection to Ward's open letter is that it displays a contempt for free speech and lay opinion in general. A secondary objection is that it shows political ineptitude and will prove counterproductive.
Posted by: Francis Sedgemore at May 1, 2007 06:10 AM
Mr Ward and companions can wait until the "Swindle" books and DVDs appear and then conduct a public burning.
Posted by: Paul at May 1, 2007 07:30 AM
Tom- Thanks for your comments. Let me clarify that I made no mention of "government censorship." Clearly, if one believes that the public is so ignorant so as to be needed to be protected, then one has a very low opinion of the ability of the public to participate in political debates. Thanks!
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at May 1, 2007 10:37 AM
As with many other scientific controversies, I am basically an agnostic on AGW. I accept that the IPCC consensus is the only game in town. Nevertheless, I am a curious person with a probing mind regarding contradictory evidence, dodgy statistics and scientific spin doctors. I am more incredulous when it comes to predictions of doom and gloom and have little convidence in computers that try to model the future. A broader perspective of my current thinking can be found in this interview:
I hope this answers you question.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at May 1, 2007 11:39 AM
Benny; thank you for your honest and constructive answer. Some of the things in the article resemble comments I have made myself, recently, on my own (rather modest) blog. I'm all for defusing the 'catastrophe' bomb.
I'm sure I'm less agnostic than you about AGW, and more trusting of climate models, but by and large, I do not feel we are speaking a different language on the subject.
Roger: no doubting that this was, strategically, a dumb idea of Bob Ward's, but I am genuinely concerned that the public, when it comes to climate change, actually knows and understands much, much less than many of us tend to assume. In the UK at the moment, climate change discussion is everywhere in the media, and yet the same misunderstanding and confusion gets repeated almost endlessly when the public is asked to express an opinion. In a war situation, does one allow propaganda to undermine the confidence of the public? Is not the task of presenting truth and exposing deceit, such as the CC 'debate' entails, not a type of warfare?
Posted by: Fergus Brown at May 1, 2007 05:10 PM
"it is in the public interest for adequate quality control to be exercised over information that is disseminated to the public to ensure that it does not include major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence and interpretations of it by researchers"
I fully agree with that statement but let's have it apply even-handedly and get rid of the double standards. Let's in fact properly and independently review this will-of-the-wisp "evidence" for CO2-based AGW, most of which seems to rely on exactly such major misinterpretations. I don't even know what to conclude about the computer modeling because that is not even considered as evidence by IPCC. In 21 years of computer modeling, 15 of which writing my own Finite Element software I've never before come across anyone who freely admits that they are guessing most of the inputs but fully expect the outputs to be 100 percent accurate. It's beyond conceit and is borderline lunacy. And there are 300+ of these guesswork models aping each other. Let's reduce it to just one open-source model and let the community take over.
Posted by: JamesG at May 2, 2007 05:26 AM
Sorry Roger, but now I'm more confused. If Bob Ward's open letter doesn't involve "government censorship", then just how again does it "call for silencing of others in political debates, ... demonstrate a complete disregard for democracy and the ability of the public to participate in important political debates" or lead you to conclude that Ward is "Positioning [him]elf n opposition to fundamental principles of democracy"?
While Ward's effort may be naive, it is hardly counter to fundamental principles of democracy to ask an opponent to make sure he has his facts straight, nor is it contemptuous of public opinion to set out specific factual disagreements in the way that he did.
It seems to me that you have clearly let your rhetoric get the better of you.
Posted by: TokyoTom at May 2, 2007 07:30 AM
Some interesting comments here about the letter. I thought it might be helpful to clarify a few points.
First, I would encourage Russell Seitz not to continue to spread the entirely false rumour that I was sacked by the Royal Society. It is a shame that he is using Prometheus as a platform for his personal smear campaign against me - or perhaps this is an example of him exercising his cherished right to "freedom of speech"?
Some have tried to characterise the letter as a violation of the right to free speech. It is not. The UK's Broadcasting Code specifies that "Views and facts must not be misrepresented". When 'The Great Global Warming Swindle' was broadcast on Channel Four on 8 March, and subsequently repeated on More 4, I believe it violated the Broadcasting Code because it contained major misrepresentations of views and facts. I have submitted a complaint to both the broadcaster and to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator.
Ofcom and Channel Four have yet to rule on the complaints from me and about 200 other people. However, Wag TV, the programme's producers are not obliged to reflect that ruling at all in the DVD version of the programme, and indeed it is being marketed partly on the basis that it was broadcast on Channel Four.
It seems to me and the other 36 signatories that viewers are just as likely to be misled by the misrepresentations within the programme regardless of whether it is watched on DVD or on a TV channel. We wrote to ask the programme-maker to remove the misrepresentations before distributing the DVD. He has so far admitted just one of the seven major misrepresentations, but has steadfastly refused to make any changes.
Free speech comes with responsibilities, and in the UK at least there are regulations that are designed to ensure that the media do not knowingly mislead the public. The letter does not complain about the the airing of different opinions on climate change, and I'm not arguing that the programme-maker shouldn't be able to tell porky pies at dinner parties with his mates from the media. But I do think that programme-makers should take their responsibilities seriously and to consider the public interest.
It remains to be seen whether the confident predictions that the letter will have the opposite effect to that intended will be right. To me, success would be for everybody who is exposed to the misrepresentations in the programme to at least be aware of them.
Posted by: Bob Ward at May 2, 2007 08:03 AM
"If Bob Ward's open letter doesn't involve 'government censorship', then just how again does it 'call for silencing of others in political debates, ...'"
Let's see...from the letter:
"A complaint from one of us (Bob Ward) is currently under consideration by both the broadcaster and Ofcom. It outlines seven major misrepresentations of both facts and views that occur in the programme, and claims a breach of Section 5.7 of the Broadcasting Code."
So Bob Ward is filing a complaint claiming a breach of government regulations. Presumably, this would result in financial (or even criminal) penalties? That seems pretty chilling of speech.
To quote from the Smothers Brothers:
Dick: "We have the freedom of speech in America."
Tom: "And you'd better say what you're supposed to say!"
Posted by: Mark Bahner at May 2, 2007 10:46 AM
Perhaps Mr. Ward would have more credibility if he had written a similar letter criticising the misrepresentation in Al Gore's movie.
I believe Roger mischaracterizes the show by saying: "The show, which I have not seen, purportedly debunks the science behind climate change."
I have seen the show and I believe that they are not debunking the science but demonstrating that it is not as settled as some would have us believe. Not really what I would call debunking.
They presented scientists whose opinions are outside the concensus and then suggests like Lomborg that there may be other priorities and that if we go on pretending this issue is the big one we will cause real harm in the third world. Spin it as you must.
I take offense at Sedgemore's remark: "You can take it that I have little time for Mr Durkin or his junk science film, and there should be no need for me to rehash the arguments against it. . ."
It seems there never is a need to hash let alone rehash the arguments. An appeal to authority is all we ever get.
Could someone direct me to the part of the letter where it specifies the errors in the show? I did not think so, no hashing there, just an appeal to the authority of the people who signed on.
Does anyone (besides me) feel sorry for Professor Wunsch?
Posted by: Jeff Norman at May 2, 2007 12:49 PM
Thanks for your comments. Governments are not the only entities with views on the role of public participation in political debates.
Bob Ward began by stating in his letter that he and his co-signatories:
"object to plans by Wag TV to distribute DVD versions of the programme ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’"
In his comment here he takes a more reasonable position:
"To me, success would be for everybody who is exposed to the misrepresentations in the programme to at least be aware of them."
If that is indeed success, it is a worthwhile aim that I have no objection to, but it seems that Mr. Ward has succeeded only in redirecting attention from the "Swindle" to his letter, which surely could not have been the goal.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at May 2, 2007 02:42 PM
I came across this extremely interesting quote from a letter from Bob Ward *to* Al Gore:
"I note that your inspirational address to the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical
I don't know Bob Ward, but my guess is that he wouldn't see any similarity between filing a complaint with a governmental regulatory agency regarding Wag TV and Michael Durkin and "...attempts to intimidate them into silence."
Posted by: Mark Bahner at May 2, 2007 03:13 PM
The best thing about the TGGWS was that, for all its fauldts, it actually showed Joe Public that it is possible to rationally consider that there could well be a great crack in the foundations of the AGW edifice. The British population, fed on a continual, daily diet of AGW propaganda by the BBC, needs to be informed that there is an alternative point of view and that those who hold it are not all lunatics or oil industry shills.
Posted by: Steve Holmes at May 2, 2007 07:26 PM