Science must never be political or emotional
25 November 2009
At about the same time as a dastardly hacker was stealing the email archive of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, a senior member of the same faculty was addressing a group of villagers in south Norfolk. The professor’s themes were energy and climate change, matters of particular interest in a part of rural East Anglia which could become an industrialised hub of renewable energy, and the point of the meeting was to bring scientific fact to bear on what had become an emotive subject.
The claim turned out to be only partially true. As in the famous emails, the concept of scientific fact in the area of global warming turned out to be surprisingly flexible and subjective. In the village hall, the eminent academic spoke convincingly about the plight of the planet and had some boldly pro-active suggestions about how we all needed to change our lives in order to conserve energy.
Somewhere along the line, though, science morphed into something very different – something political and emotion-based. We needed to give a lead to developing countries, the professor said. It was important to be able to offer our children and grandchildren a life worth living. As a general rule, communities should take it as a matter of pride to have wind turbines in their midst; these structures were important as symbols of commitment to the future. It was powerful stuff. Only later did its irrelevance to any scientific discourse begin to niggle.
There is nothing wrong with emotive subjects being addressed in a speech by an academic, but when those arguments are flying under the colours of serious, objective research, then something intellectually dishonest – or at least self-deluded – is going on.
A similar mindset has gripped the academics whose email correspondence, if it is as genuine as it seems to be, has been revealed to the world. So passionately do the scientists believe that they are right that, perhaps without noticing, their area of research became a cause. Those who disagreed with them became the enemy, to be characterised as “idiots”, “ideologues”, “contrarian scientists”. In one email, an academic is reassured that the committee which he would be attending is “solid” except for a “token skeptic” who would be kept in check by the majority.
In a sense, this kind of knockabout stuff is all part of academic life. It is a weird fact of scholarly life that the more elevated the area of research, the lower the tactics of those involved. A university is a bitchy, rivalrous place.
Yet there are differences here. In the matter of climate change, every scientific paper is a potential weapon in the public arena. The specialists are in a position of unimaginable influence, and some of them have had their heads turned by this new, public power. The idea has developed that their role is less to discover the truth then to spread the word, to engage politicians and the business community, to convince the public. If the hacked emails are to be believed, compromises have been made by those caught up in this great campaign; often their correspondence reads more like the work of activists than academics. There is a distinct suggestion that the research can only – will only – go in one direction.
Politicians and action groups work this way, selecting favourable data, ignoring inconvenient evidence, playing PR games in the presentation of arguments. It really matters if researchers and scientists, whose careers and reputations are based on intellectual integrity, begin to put the end before the means, the argument before the truth.
Elton: a natural born Aussie
The news that Ben Elton is emigrating to Australia was apparently an invention by Britain’s right-wing press. He has recently revealed that, when he spoke of acquiring Australian citizenship on a chat-show and added that his family would be based in Australia, he meant that he would be dividing his time between London and Fremantle.
It is a shame because, in a way, Elton has the perfect persona for a happy life in Australia. He is amusingly chippy about the old country. “I’ve made a f***ing contribution,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald, addressing the question of his nationality. “I co-wrote Blackadder and co-wrote The Young Ones. I’ve had 12 top-10 novels. I’ve done my f***ing bit.”
His view of the royal family – “a sad little old lady” and “a mad old bigot”, whose oldest son is a “disillusioned ex-hippy” – also pretty much accords to the standard Australian view, although those remarks, too, have been the subject of a correction. They were taken out of context, he now says.
Elton’s latest target is, perhaps predictably, the internet. It is now impossible (I paraphrase the original Elton version) to go to the lavatory without a photograph of the event appearing on Facebook. This complaint about “the death of privacy” was expressed to a journalist during a publicity tour.
Slightly bitter, very confused: Australian life seems to suit Ben Elton.
Beware of Coca-Cola jingle buskers
London’s underground stations lost a certain charm when some fat controller in middle management decreed that anyone playing music on the Tube would need to be licensed and to be playing at an agreed place. The result might be slightly more tuneful but represented a defeat for the joyful anarchy that used to be part of music played in the wild.
Now the taming of the busking community is to go one step further. As part of a multi-media campaign, Coca-Cola are to “incentivise” buskers to play some ghastly jingle that their TV adverts will be churning out over the Christmas period. The idea is that this kind of viral advertising, by catching the public unawares, actually makes people feel warmly towards the brand being sold.
It is a lot to ask an impoverished musician to turn down the bribery of a cynical corporation but, for the sake of commuters and their own feelings of self-worth, let us hope that if they agree to play this song of yule-tide compromise, they will do so very, very quietly.