You probably think I live in front of the television as, once again, I find myself commenting on a science documentary, this time from the wonderful BBC4. The programme, in the Storyville series, “Meet the Climate Sceptics” by Rupert Murray, followed Lord Monckton for a year as he campaigned in Australia and the US against climate change regulations.
Unless you live under a rock you have heard of Lord Monckton, a British aristocrat who has attempted over the past few years to take on climate scientists at their own game by learning enough atmospheric physics to be able to read the primary literature. Thus he is in a stronger position than many in the climate sceptic camp – not least the self-styled “interpreter of interpretation” James Delingpole, about whom I have written previously.
James Delingpole calls it “Another BBC Stitch up” and says it is the latest example of BBC bias. Watts up with Watt says that after being interviewed he objected to the terms of the contract and therefore didn’t appear in the film.
But to be honest, it struck me as a surprisingly sympathetic documentary, that painted a very different picture from what I had been led to expect. Lord Monckton is a likeable sort of chap, highly persuasive, with an ability to charm people, and a powerful stage persona. The documentary thus followed him as he spoke to sceptical conferences in Australia and the US, as well as his testimony before the US Congress where, the documentary suggested, he had single-handedly undermined the confidence in the scientific consensus of a cohort of influential US politicians to the point that any hope of limiting US emissions was doomed. This, the documentary argued, had led directly to the failure of the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences.
There is also no doubting Monckton’s genuine sincerity. He has clearly devoted an enormous amount of time and effort, at the age of over 60, to what for many people requires years of study when they are less than half Monckton’s age. He was also extraordinarily open about his life, reflecting on both his weak background in the sciences and his work to overcome it, but also his battle with Graves disease which had left him incapacitated and unable to function for almost 25 years.
As Monckton talked about his illness he mentioned that he had done research and discovered a way to cure himself and that he was living proof of the effectiveness of his cure. This kind of talk invariably sets alarm bells ringing. Before you start going all Ben Goldacre on me, there was more. Monckton added that the cure he had found was also rather effective for HIV/Aids, malaria, and multiple sclerosis.
John McEnroe used to scream “You cannot be serious” at Wimbledon and I found myself mouthing the words at the telly. Lord Monckton goes on record as saying that the same “cure” acts on two very different auto-immune disorders, a retrovirus and on a unicellular parasite??? One interpretation is that a) it’s dynamite and b) it reveals that Lord Monckton has little business sense. Were this true, surely he would have the method patented and would flogging it to GSK for several billion. The other interpretation is that he is an incurable optimist.
And it is the latter interpretation that really came out of the rest of the documentary. Armed with his readings, with plots of temperature and cloud cover, with linear regressions and equations written in very large font sizes, Monckton travels the world evangelizing, and lapping up the adulation of the crowds.
Somehow there was something very familiar about it. The learned academic in the tweedy jacket stands up in front of the conference. The powerpoint slides are slick and there is the logo in the corner to indicate their affiliation (in this case, it’s a somewhat garish version of the symbol of the House of Lords, an issue which I understand has aroused some controversy as he does not sit in the House). Then the graphs follow with an exposition of the argument…..
And yet that’s where the parallel ends.
First of all, Lord Monckton has no data of his own. This is unusual in a scientist at a conference. Academics critique the work of their colleagues all the time. Yet, it invariably happens because they can add some new insight from a different angle. Some new experiment, measurement, or observation that contrasts with what has been done before.
The second point is that at an academic conference it is unusual for scientists to spend much time on the basics. In one of the snippets from an Australian lecture Monckton is shown talking about a great equation – this turns out to be nothing more than Stefan’s law, with a correction factor – we’re talking at most first year undergraduate physics. At this point, Murray naughtily cuts to the audience looking a bit bewildered. Or maybe he said they were feeling bewildered. Either way it was a bit naughty of him. At a real academic conference, though, I suspect they would have been looking bored and possibly a bit pissed off.
The third difference, of course, is with the audience. He is not speaking to people with his level of knowledge. He is speaking to general audiences. And not any old audience. He is speaking to audiences who are coming to hear him tell them what they want to hear.
And there is a huge difference between speaking to a general audience and talking to specialists. It’s in the level of scrutiny that you have to expect.
Let’s face it. Academics can be pretty nasty. We spend our careers thinking about some tiny little area of science, agonizing sometimes, like medieval scholars the precise admixture of angels you can fit on the head of a pin. And not just any pin but a pin of a certain provenance. And when we announce the results of our thinking to the world, our colleagues try to follow our train of thought and ask questions about each step of the process. Particularly in North America, but even in the more circumspect UK, questioning can be pretty blunt. “How do you know that this approximation is valid?” “How do you know that the structure of the compound in solution is the same in the solid state”. “That’s just not right and now I’ll tell you why”. And, rather Paxman-like, they won’t take evasion. I’ve watched people get nailed to the wall – there’s a certain frisson about seeing a professor who has published in a posh journal have his work trashed because he missed a key assumption. And I’m sorry to have to confess that I have been nailed myself. It’s deeply unpleasant, especially in front of an audience. And academics don’t forget - you’re only ever as good as your latest publication or conference presentation. And while big names attract crowds in science, it doesn’t take much for people to start muttering “he’s past it” “she’s gone off the boil” and “he’s not wheeling that out again, is he?”.
In a way, scientific conferences are more like going to the opera with a bunch of opera buffs. Everyone knows the piece, and owns several recordings. Some remember La Stupenda in the role in 1964 when she sang with Del Monaco (or something). Everyone is really keen to have a good time. But woe betide you if the production isn’t right, if the tempo of an aria is wrong, and the tenor a little flat. The knives will be out in a moment.
The impression I got of the audiences that Monckton was talking to was more like an audience of nostalgics wanting to hear Dame Vera Lynn. They wanted to hear the old songs, even though her voice was a bit wobbly. And out in the street were ladies in there 70′s behaving like teenyboppers after a rock concert, one of them squealing when she got a peck on the cheek.
Now the accusation that is levelled at scientists is that we form a cosy closed shop and that the reason that people like Monckton (and others like Pielke and McKitrick) get such flak from scientists is that they are outsiders and that they are not being accepted.
It’s not that at all. It’s that unless you can support your arguments and have enough control over the limitations of the methods that you use and invoke, you’re going to get torn apart. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what your rank is. It may not be to your face, but I’ve written before, a few months later in a paper, your arguments will be refuted by new data, new modelling, new analysis. And your critics in their turn will have to run the gauntlet by someone else. Possibly you.
As the programme ended, Murray had begun to suspect that there were things wrong with Monckton’s arguments and particularly statements that Monckton had made about how astronomers had all – he claimed – agreed in 2004 that the sun was involved. Murray confronted Monckton at the end, getting him quite gently to admit that he had cherry picked the literature for papers that served his own ends.
Monckton, like Delingpole before him, is furious and tried to get an injunction to stop the programme going out. He failed.
But he was given the opportunity to make a statement. Whether this was the result of the legal action, wasn’t made clear. He did his best to sound unbowed. “Listen to both sides. Believe no one. Because science is ultimately a sceptical endeavour.” All of which sounds very reasonable. But it is profoundly disingenuous. Lord Monckton is shown quite clearly telling his audiences things that just aren’t true.
And he is not alone in this. Only last week Christopher Booker wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that human emissions represent only 3% of the total emissions coming from the oceans and other sources. With this statement, at the very least, he reveals himself to be remarkably ignorant of the carbon cycle. Just imagine. If one of the Telegraph’s business writers were to confuse a company’s profits with its turnover, furious readers would be right to sue if they lost their shirts on the investments he’d analyzed. Even without a lawsuit you’d think the journo’s career wouldn’t last very long.
But perhaps because Booker is one of the founders of Private Eye, a sceptical publication in every positive sense of the word, he gets to write n’importe quoi week after week.
And to me, this is the puzzle. Why are people who are known to make stuff up given so much credit? Wasn’t Andrew Gilligan famously fired by the BBC on the grounds that he couldn’t support his claims regarding Tony Blair and the weapons of mass destruction?
So how do they get away with it? Could it be something with their pedigree? Surely not. It’s not because their audiences genuinely lap up Delingpole’s favourite fallacy, the “argumento ad verecundiam” aka the appeal to authority? Could it be that sounding authoritative makes you an authority these days? Funny that.