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Edition 31

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Memoir

Science without a capital S

Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2011

SCIENCE IS ONE of the few human constructs designed to test its own veracity continuously. There is no point in time at which we all nod, wise men with beards, women with six-figure IQs, and say: 'That's settled...next!' All aspects of scientific enquiry are always under review.

But it's not as simple as that.

When I was an ABC cub, in the early 1970s, I was regaled by History Men and Counter-Culturists with the view that Science had lost its capital S. Science was, like everything else, conditional, even if we agreed that most of it was considered settled, more or less: the earth is round, dinosaurs are dead and duodenal ulcers are caused by germs, not stress.

Popper did not apply universally. In many fields, not only Freud's, you couldn't do experiments to prove or disprove a theory. Powerful interests, the wise men cautioned, governed research; and if the military-industrial complex didn't like it, it didn't happen.

Accordingly, during the 1970s and '80s, my colleagues gave science a hard time. I did it in a slightly frivolous manner, running hoaxes and satires. Norman Swan did it by exposing fraud and duplicity. The late Peter Hunt did it by showing how partial the use of scientific knowledge was in the management of forests and mines. Matt Peacock did it by exposing the horrendous effects of asbestos on human health.

Science was another 'self-perpetuating priesthood', and to get a fresh idea expressed the old professor had first to die. You might wait for decades. And, finally, in some benighted nations, if the tyrant didn't like it, the field lapsed: in the 1930s Joseph Stalin had Trofim Lysenko, and crops failed; decades later Thabo Mbeki had Peter Duesberg, and too many people died from AIDS.

We wanted our audience to think twice when authority was wheeled in on its throne to pronounce the infallible truth. The Academy wasn't quite the same as the Vatican, we implied, but there were resemblances. It was often political, always complex.

Such is youth.

The more I saw of the 'fringe', the more annoyed I became by their self-seeking, often deeply anti-intellectual intransigence. While the crystal-stroking, herbalist folk in chunky cardies and ponytails (as Mike Carlton notoriously described them) got massively ripped off, so science itself became more self-critical and professional in the best sense. What worried me was the political naivety.

 

IN THE 1990S and the present century the world changed dramatically. Yes, there were internets and webs, and almost instant and universal communication. This meant that the longevity of scientific falsities shrank. At least, in academia. But science communicators also flourished, freed up by the new willingness of institutions desperate for funds, to maintain profile: they let their boffins speak. Paul Davies, Tim Flannery, Mike Archer, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking and others became famous. There was plenty of science on TV. It was often over-produced to within a nanometre of its life, but you got the point. It was there.

Science seemed secure, even popular. There were embarrassments, such as the disarray in physics, which couldn't get its quanta and its relativities in one box, and had to wave red-faced at all that dark stuff – but scientists had a terrific tale to tell about the natural world and were listened to with respect.

By 2007 all this had changed. There was no explosive event, no tipping point that anyone noticed. But the consequences have been enormous. It's as if a thought bomb went off in Dr Who and half the globe's brains turned to custard. Governments have wobbled, prime ministers (actual and potential) have fallen and the President of the United States is threatened by the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

It is another consequence of the new communication technology, in tandem with the old: say anything you like, tell any lies you fancy, and they can have as much currency as the sayings of any old-fashioned sage. Instantly.

Three main areas bore the brunt of the new politics: health, evolution and climate. The journal Nature, shocked, put it this way in March 2010: 'Climate scientists are on the defensive, knocked off balance by a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science. Most researchers find themselves completely out of their league in this kind of battle because it's only superficially about the science. The real goal is to stoke the angry fires of talk radio, cable news, the blogosphere and the like, all of which feed off of contrarian story lines and seldom make the time to assess facts and weigh evidence. Civility, honesty, fact and perspective are irrelevant.'

That last line is crucial: 'Civility, honesty, fact and perspective are irrelevant.'

I have been producing and presenting The Science Show on ABC Radio for thirty-five years. The change in tone – when civility, honesty, fact and perspective became irrelevant – was chilling.

When Ian Plimer's Heaven and Earth (Connor Court) was about to be published, in 2009, I knew it would make a splash. Accordingly I sent it to three professors hoping that one of them would find the time when not up a mountain or locked in committees to record a review. All three were climate experts of high standing.

Within days of my deadline all of them suddenly delivered. I decided to put their comments to air, in different programs. One, Kurt Lambeck, then the president of the Australian Academy of Science, appeared on Ockham's Razor; the other two, David Karoly from the University of Melbourne and Malcolm Walter from the University of NSW (an old friend of Plimer's), on The Science Show. The reviews shredded Heaven and Earth.

After they were broadcast I received an email from Plimer demanding airtime for a response. I replied that it wasn't customary for book reviews to be followed by replies from disgruntled authors but he could have an Ockham's Razor to himself. 'Immediately?' he demanded.

'Well, no,' I replied. I was in Corsica, wouldn't be home for three weeks and our science programs don't have locums, so they were already pre-recorded. He would have to wait until I returned.

A couple of days later Plimer appeared at the Sydney Institute. He announced that the ABC was refusing to have him on. His comments, via the institute's podcast, went around the world.

On my return from Europe I duly recorded his scripted talk. He repeated his main lines from Heaven and Earth debunking climate science, ignored the arguments his three critics had presented and attacked the ABC for keeping him from its outlets. Ian Plimer had, however, on the publication of his book, appeared on most of our frontline programs. At length.

I was astounded that the man I'd been instrumental in awarding a Eureka Prize to, for his campaign against creationists, was now willing to emulate Rush Limbaugh. He knew what I had promised. He knew the ABC had been generous to him.

 

MY CONCERN IS about the science. My job is to report what authoritative sources say about the latest, tested evidence. I am past caring what the consequences of that evidence may be, although proof of pixies, faked moon landings or CIA bombings of the World Trade Center would be rather perplexing. If it is credible work, on it goes.

I report the latest paper on climate rather like a financial journalist reports the value of the euro. If it's 58 Australian cents, then so be it. We say so. You'd hardly say it's 28 cents too often, without being sacked. The consequences of misleading the public on matters of fact can be really harmful.

But the value of the euro is not absolute. It changes from day to day. It is influenced by arbitrary factors, such as 'confidence' or flighty investors. Scientific evidence tries to frame nature: what's really out there. It builds on immense edifices of previous investigation. It is still conditional, but usually very robust.

Until now you dismissed that rigour at your peril. But science in many issues underpins politics. Look at water, rivers, genetic modification, forests, fishing: divisive issues with consequences, with winners and losers. Rather than addressing the issues head-on, it is much easier to torpedo the scientists, unused as they are, gentle souls, to brawls on the hustings.

So Sarah Palin announces that fruit-fly research is a waste of money. Rush Limbaugh tells his millions of listeners, 'The four corners of deceit are government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit.' Ray Evans, reviewing Climate: The Counter Consensus by Bob Carter (Stacey International, 2010) in Quadrant magazine, avers on carbon dioxide, warming and the human influence: 'These two arguments have no evidence to support them. None.'

'Death panels' are conjured by opponents to President Obama's health bill, suggesting that the commie systems in the UK and Canada have triage committees ready to sentence your granny to execution if she is deemed unacceptable for treatment in public hospitals. They even said Stephen Hawking would not be alive today if he lived in England (he does!). This led Professor Lawrence Krauss to write in the Scientific American: 'The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperilled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.'

'Democratic society is imperilled': that is what's at stake. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, had it right when she compared political parties to football teams in conflict. She did not take the next step: politics is about power, not achievement; winning, not legislation; noise, not meaning. Governments here and abroad are paralysed. Programs are in stasis. Debates are stymied by monstrous mendacities. Obama is a Muslim? The Earth is cooling? Medicare kills pensioners?

What is happening? Naomi Oreskes and Eric M Conway suggest the campaign has been orchestrated by a few think tanks using techniques of the 'mad men' on Madison Avenue, knowing that the scientists' replies would unfailingly be prolix, contorted by pious attempts at fairness and, worst of all, published in journals the public never reads. In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Allen & Unwin, 2010), the two academics describe how it was done.

Richard Girling summarises it in a review in the Sunday Times: 'A tiny, unqualified minority, they [the contrarians] succeeded in skewing every debate. By promoting doubt, they persuaded editors that, in the name of "balance", their propaganda deserved equal weight to the painstaking work of independent scientists. Peer-reviewed research was routinely dismissed by the sceptics as "junk science". Perversity and invention were erected in its place. The contrarians are far-right political ideologues who cut their teeth in the Cold War. When the Soviet Bloc collapsed, they looked for a new threat to the free world and found it in the environmental movement. They compare it to a watermelon: green on the outside, red in the middle. For them, regulation is the enemy of the free market, the slippery slope to socialism, which must be blocked at whatever cost...Oreskes and Conway have exposed the lie.'

Climate science is replete with uncertainties. No one knows how high temperatures may rise, whether the effects will be drastic or otherwise, and how quickly remediation may work. There is plenty to debate, even before we consider policy options and their consequences.

But how do you spot a wilful distorter or his arguments in advance? They are of several types: Grumpy Uncles, Tory Media Tarts, Foaming Shock Jocks, Jurassic Marxists and the Busted Bitter. They may be combined in assorted ways.

Grumpy Uncles look like Wilson Tuckey on stilts. They have 'seen it all' and know that previous millennial warnings came to nothing. Been there...

Tory Media Tarts suffer from Attention Deprivation Disorder. Nigel Lawson and a couple of his fellow lords from Thatcher's time (Christopher Monckton) add a Brideshead Revisited cachet to the list of dissenters.

Foaming Shock-Jocks we all know about. The trick is to tell the professional (and sometimes rational) contrarians from the sociopaths who really mean it.

Jurassic Marxists feel green politics is a bourgeois push to deprive the world's poor of the rich comforts we enjoy. The journalist Alexander Cockburn and Martin Durkin (maker of The Great Global Warming Swindle) may be members.

The Busted Bitter (and often Twisted) were once supreme in their fields but fell out with their employer – university, media outlet – over money or status. Having recovered from the insult they now fly the world appearing on well-funded platforms with almost anybody knocking 'government!'

If you haven't spotted which type your interlocutor belongs to, test their argument. Characteristically, the climate sceptic displays the following signs: no level of evidence is ever enough. (You may go back a thousand times and they will always have a blocking tactic.) They invariably are linked to a lobby group, often with powerful political connections: Quadrant, the Institute of Public Affairs, the egregious Senator Fielding (whose combination of creationism and climate doubting seemed not to put Plimer off one bit). They are entirely against anthropogenic global warming – only 100 per cent attitudes are entertained. (Most of us are not 100 per cent either way about anything, except a free drink.) Peer review is an echo chamber of old mates and academies are glorified hospices. The greater the renown of the scientist, the more they will be rejected by 'sceptics' as authority figures (as I used to do in the 1970s – I recognise the slippery debating trick). Lines are repeated shamelessly, like pollies on a stump speech, despite the arguments and facts having been crushed a hundred times before.

If the scientists seem consistent and numerous in making the case on climate, it's only because they are rabidly chasing the same research dollar. (This can be attached to virtually any finding at any time.) If you find sceptics' anti-climate tirades in reactionary magazines, free-enterprise think tanks and the right wing of conservative parties then there's a chance, just a chance, that it's ideological. (That they appear hardly anywhere else is, of course, a coincidence or a plot.)

There are two final gambits to look for if the above hasn't worked. Look for the overturning of philosopher David Hume's ideas on causality. Those billiard balls may not rebound tomorrow, despite having done so for the whole of recorded history, and carbon dioxide may fail to have any effect beyond today's concentration, two centuries of research not withstanding.

Then you can call all the climate scientists and their adherents 'religious deviants'. As Cardinal George Pell put it: 'Some of the hysteric and extreme claims about global warming are also a symptom of pagan emptiness, of Western fear when confronted by the immense and basically uncontrollable forces of nature. Belief in a benign God who is master of the universe has a steadying psychological effect, although it is no guarantee of Utopia, no guarantee that the continuing climate and geographic changes will be benign. In the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.'

Any one of these easy-to-administer tests show up an unblushing sophistry designed to obliterate any climate scientists offering evidence of any kind, hampered as ever by an unawareness of inevitable uncertainty.

 

MY JOB IS the pursuit of truth. Or so they tell me. Just as I will look at today's listing and tell you that the euro is worth 59.5 Australian cents, I will report what is published on climate science in the finest journals or summarised by the top international academies of science, including our own, because it is their function to assess the state of play in a field. It has been my experience that all these sources point in the same direction. Climate is changing, we are responsible and the problem is real. I cannot help what experts say. I am biased towards authority – reliable, proven sources.

But I will seek out dissenting voices. Not just because I'm a child of the 1970s and those hirsute counter-cultural renegades, but because the world is a complex place and we need to probe interesting ideas outside the mainstream. Accordingly, our science programs have featured Matt Ridley (a 'luke-warmist'), Freeman Dyson (a climate critic), Don Aitkin (a sceptic), Nigel Calder (a dissident), Jennifer Marohasy (an indefatigable critic of greens) and the more conspicuous sceptics from within science itself. A broadcaster must engage with unfashionable ideas. These may prove to be, as were the claims of Vaclav Havel and others antagonistic to socialist 'truth', dead right in another age.

There are only a limited number of occasions on which you can have a fellow saying the same thing, pushing the line of the lobby. We do not, in the programs I present, feature Greenpeace or the Australian Conservation Foundation or the anti‐GM groups (or very rarely); we also try to avoid Institute of Public Affairs and Heartland Institute spokesmen (though some of our 'sceptics' are paid by them, or have been).

Such are the complexities. Such are the trials of science in public. Lord Robert May, the Australian who became both president of the Royal Society of London and Britain's chief scientist, warned ten years ago that this would be the 'Century of Uncertainty'. He wrote: 'Pockets of aberrant opinion may hold out, with proponents either ignoring decisive evidence and experiments, or alternatively inventing ever more baroque ways of modifying their views to accommodate facts...It is important, although often difficult, at each stage in the evolution of such a landscape to maintain a clear sense of its geomorphology. Unfortunately, the media's praiseworthy aim of always presenting a "balanced" account can have difficulty tracking such an evolving landscape. The temptation, whether in print, radio or TV, is to present the "two sides", as if reporting a sporting event.'

For those of us in broadcasting it has become trickier than ever.

Democracy has, in the past two years, resembled a sporting event – one without an outcome and with too much brawling. We should remember previous eras with similar turbulence, when lies – often big ones – became easy to tell. It is likely that the stakes, both politically and environmentally, are as high today as they were then. Let us try to ensure that the sons and daughters of Goebbels do not end up creating a world as ghastly as it was when I was born.


From Griffith Review Edition 31: Ways of Seeing © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review