I’ve just watched Sir Paul Nurse in Science Under Attack. Nurse has a Nobel prize for his work on cell division. He’s a biologist.
But the programme mostly wasn’t about biology, but about climate science – or rather climate scepticism. Or “denial”, as Sir Paul preferred to call it.
The impression I had of the entire programme was that it said, in a multitude of different ways, that climate scientists knew what they were talking about, and global warming was happening, and people should believe what they said, and be very, very worried.
There was the segment with a NASA scientist with a giant split screen showing the weather as it actually happened, and the weather as it had been predicted, and they were almost indistinguishable, with clouds popping up in the same places all over the planet.
Fred Singer, the climate sceptic, was briefly interviewed at one point, with his stalactite data. After the interview, Nurse pointed at a small tree, and said that the single tree (the stalactite) was just part of the picture. You had to look at the whole picture. i.e. stalactities are not enough.
He also interviewed Professor Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA. It was a very sympathetic interview, in which the single Climategate “hiding the decline” email was put forward as being the substance of the entire Climategate affair. Which it isn’t. There are lots of emails. “Hiding the decline” was just one line from one of them.
There was also the Delingpole interview where the question was put to him whether he’d trust the consensus medical opinion on treatment or follow some obscure guru. Delingpole, after a moment of thought, asked if the discussion could return to climate science. This moment in the discussion has been seized upon as the moment that Nurse broke Delingpole. I couldn’t see it myself.
Nurse also talked about bloggers (e.g. me) who he described as having reached their conclusions first, and then cherry-picked their data to suit.
Well, you know that’s just like me, don’t you?
At the end, Nurse was reverentially holding Newton’s manuscript copy of Principia, and gazing at the signed copy of The Origin of Species that Darwin had given the Royal Society.
But at the end of the programme, it wasn’t the subtle and not-so-subtle hints to the viewer that the climate scientists were totally on top of their job, and knew what they were talking about, and the climate deniers were all, well, …people like me, that stuck in mind.
What stuck in my mind was that the way that Sir Paul described science was that it was a unified whole, and you were either a “scientist” or a non-scientist, and that there was a kind of unity to all this science, such that “scientists” all knew pretty much the same thing.
For example, he said that all scientists knew that plants contained things called “genes”, even if stupid laymen didn’t know a thing about them.
Do they? He’s probably right, but how many quantum physicists or climate scientists know exactly what a gene is? And how many molecular biologists could give a good summary of Newton’s laws of motion or the physics of atmospheric greenhouse gases? Most of them probably know no more about scientific disciplines outside their own narrow specialisation than any other TV-watching layman.
And exactly how much does Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel-prize-winning biologist, know about climate science? Has he tried, like I have, to build his own simple climate simulation model? Can he write computer simulation models? I can. And if he can’t write them himself, and do the maths and science himself, is he not trusting that other scientists have done so? If he can’t work it out himself, doesn’t he just have faith in other scientists? Is that not all he was expressing in his support for climate science – faith that they knew what they were talking about?
As Nurse presented it, “Science” was a sort of unified whole. It was a kind of church. All scientists were united in a scientific consensus not just about climate science, but all science of whatsoever nature whatsoever.
Or at least, that was the idea of the church of science that Sir Paul was presenting. Believe it all, or believe none of it! If you were sceptical about climate science, then you were sceptical about Newton and Einstein and Darwin. It was all or nothing.
But I think that, in adopting this line of defence, Sir Paul has embarked upon what might be called the Death Ride of Science. He is, as President of the Royal Society, throwing the full majestic weight of Science behind a really rather novel and uncertain climate science.
It’s as if he threw the full majestic weight of Science behind the headline antismoking “science” study which showed a 17% fall in heart attacks since the UK smoking ban.
What Sir Paul should be doing is to get rid of this sort of pseudo-science, expelling if from the body of established Science like a plague virus – as fast as he possibly can. Instead, he’s going to embrace it. If your peer-reviewed papers are published in established, recognised scientific journals, what you’re doing is Science, and deserves the support of all other Science.
This will prove to be a catastrophic strategic error. Sir Paul will have spent the accrued capital of hundreds of years of scientific research simply to defend one or two outlying positions on climate science and tobacco research.
Sir Paul refuses to retreat anywhere. Not just in physics or chemistry or biology, but also in climate and tobacco research. The line must be held everywhere. There must be no retreat anywhere. This was, it might be remarked, Hitler’s advice to his more flexible generals – like Manstein or Rommel – who were able to imaginatively concede ground in one place in order to win it in another.
It is Sir Paul’s Hitlerian inflexibility which will bring about the death of science. Refusing to concede anything, he will end up conceding everything. Science is set to face a catastrophe, simply because this inflexible man refuses to ever retreat from anywhere.
I know just one of them durned’d bloggers, but I care about science, and I care about finding out the truth, and I think that Sir Paul Nurse is leading science to disaster and defeat.