Why intolerance of dissent is self-defeating: we couldnt have expressed it better ourselves!

Climate of intolerance

Newsweek has used climate change as its cover story this week, under
the title 'The truth about denial'. The gist of the argument is that there
is a well-funded 'denial industry' which seeks to undermine the sound
scientific basis for the prevailing concerns about human-induced climate
change. Parallels are drawn with the tobacco industry lobby and, of course,
all this is said to be taking place in the name of private profit.

This is the latest example of a deeply disturbing trend towards
intolerance of dissenters, which has even led to some commentators
suggesting Nuremberg-style trials of 'climate criminals'. Such a febrile
atmosphere is not conducive to rational thinking or discussion, so let's
take a deep breath, count to ten, and look at some of the facts.

First, there are undoubtedly a few extremists around on both sides of
the argument, who may choose to overemphasize their arguments and indulge in
personal attacks on those who disagree with them. On the sceptical side,
there will undoubtedly also be some people who question that climate is
changing, but the vast majority of those who do not agree with the IPCC
orthodoxy are concerned only with the certainty with which increased carbon
dioxide levels are assigned the role of primary culprit. The term 'denier',
with its overtones of the Holocaust, is both inappropriate and offensive.

And as for Big Oil funding spurious studies, we have surely moved on
from there. The great majority of companies have embraced the new reality of
climate change policy and, like all good capitalists, looked for ways to
benefit from it. With demand for energy and fossil fuels continuing to grow
seemingly inexorably, the problem for most oil companies is fulfilling
demand rather than trying to create more. On a more fundamental level,
although we should of course look at who is funding a particular study, this
should not mean it is automatically dismissed. Environmental activists are
not known for the objectivity of their studies - they seem to work on the
basis of the end justifying the means - but nuggets of truth can be found
there as well. Professional scientists should do a professional job whoever
is paying them.

There is a natural tendency for the scientific establishment to close
ranks to defend the consensus view of the particular topical issue of the
time. After all, as they say, no-one likes to see a beautiful theory spoilt
by ugly facts. But the issue of climate change has brought things to a new
pitch. When GM food was making headlines on a daily basis, this was largely
on the basis of opposition from activist groups; the vast majority of
scientists were happy that this was a safe and well-regulated technology.

Now - almost uniquely - environmental activists are aligned with the
scientific mainstream. NGOs need no longer attack critics: the Royal Society
will do this for them. For good measure, Newsweek and other media are
willing to print scurrilous, one-sided views. Fortunately, since much of the
media thrives on controversy, some broadcasters and papers are still willing
to give dissenting voices an outlet. The problem is that, all too often,
they are not looking for nuanced views or constructive criticism, but for
more extreme positions which only serve to polarise the argument.

The most worrying aspect of this is the apparent desire to close down
debate. When Margaret Beckett, in her position as Environment Secretary,
called for the media not to allow sceptics to have their views aired, surely
this represented a step too far for the politicisation of an issue.
Fortunately, the UK press, despite its rather obvious faults, is still free
to print what it likes.

Let's go back to the issue of GM foods. Imagine the furore if a
government minister, acting on the best scientific advice, had called for
environmentalists not to be given airtime or column inches because 'the
science is settled'. What an outcry that would have caused, and quite
rightly, because it inches towards state censorship. But when the issue is
climate change, the only people who seem to be concerned about this are the
people whose views are in danger of being suppressed.

To repeat our position for the umpteenth time: The Scientific Alliance
does not think that the prevailing IPCC view on the role of greenhouse gases
is necessarily wrong. However, the evidence for it is circumstantial, there
are a number of pieces of conflicting evidence, and alternative hypotheses
have not all been properly evaluated. In the meantime, a complex, costly
(and, at present, fairly ineffectual) set of policies for reduction of
carbon intensity has been introduced. There is a danger that many countries
are going further down what may prove to be a major policy cul-de-sac.

In these circumstances, people who have legitimate concerns to raise
have an obligation to speak out. Constructive questioning of hypotheses
serves to strengthen ones which are right and cause wrong ones to fail. How
can scientists possibly object to that?

The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242

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