Science advocacy and political lobbying

My reaction this morning to a contribution made to the Psi-com email discussion list for science communicators has stirred up a right hornets’ nest. Given that the list is closed, I cannot quote directly from other members’ contributions, but I will refer here to the discussion and, in the following words, draw heavily from my own contribution to it.

Bob Ward, a former Royal Society press officer, has put together an open letter to Martin Durkin, maker of a documentary broadcast recently on British television that denies human influence in climate change. The letter is signed by a number of middle-ranking and senior climate scientists, and other academics with an interest in climate change. Before proceeding with this article, I ask that you read and inwardly digest the contents of the open letter.

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Durkin I have written about here, here and here. You can take it that I have little time for Mr Durkin or his junk science film, and there should be no need for me to rehash the arguments against it.

The aim of my reaction to Bob Ward’s initiative, as announced today to the Psci-com community and discussed by David Adam in the Guardian, is to object to the scientists’ demand that the DVD of Durkin’s documentary be either withdrawn or corrected of its scientific errors.

I wish also to highlight the way in which Durkin and his associates, some of whom run science media agencies such as the Science Media Centre (SMC) and Sense about Science, conduct themselves in public. The irony is that many science communicators, Bob Ward included, hold in high regard political lobby groups such as the SMC that masquerade as independent science media agencies. Ward is a member of the SMC’s advisory board, though that may not be so relevant (see below).

In my opinion – which I admit can sometimes come across as a little intemperate (it runs in the family, and I am stuck with this genetic inheritance) – the open letter to Durkin is not the way to go about challenging his awful, error-strewn documentary. I can just see the headlines: “Establishment scientists attempt to silence climate change sceptics!”.

Take, for example, David Adam’s Grauniad article. Durkin’s comment at the end of that piece will, I’m sure, be just the start. Forget about the sensationalist headline, which is almost certainly the product of a subeditor’s fevered imagination. My problem is with the approach taken by those who drafted the letter.

If Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle DVD should be withdrawn or corrected, as the signatories to the letter demand, what about Al Gore’s execrable Oscar-winning political comeback vehicle, “An Inconvenient Truth”? And in a country that does not proscribe holocaust denial, how can we possibly demand the withdrawal from sale of Martin Durkin’s trashy anti-science film?

If scientists have been misrepresented by Durkin – and one or two most certainly have – then they should consider suing him. When Durkin’s ideological bedfellows in the Revolutionary Communist Party/Institute of Ideas/Spiked Online/Sense about Science/Science Media Centre/… accused ITN journalists of fabricating evidence of Serbian concentration camps in Bosnia, the journalists sued, and that was the end of LM. The magazine then re-emerged as Spiked Online.

So sue Durkin, and possibly Channel 4 too. Complain to Ofcom. I did. At least demand the head of Hamish Mykura, C4’s commissioning editor for science. But call for Durkin’s DVDs to be withdrawn from sale? Not in my name.

What we need is not calls for censorship, but more scientists and science communicators aggressively putting the case for good science. Stern letters and articles in the broadsheets make us all look ridiculous by association.

Ward complains that Wag TV, the independent production company responsible for Durkin’s film, will not be bound by any Ofcom ruling against Channel 4. He also thinks it quite reasonable to object to the distribution of inaccurate material.

That may be so, but if this is to be our response to inaccurate material in the public domain, and the ravings of lunatics, where do we start? How about the bible? “See you in court, Dr Ratzinger. We have ways of making you shut up!”

Channel 4 may be bound by a code of conduct when it comes to what may be broadcast, but Wag TV as a commercial entity is free to distribute the DVD, and I’m not sure how it could be otherwise. It may not give me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but neither am I particularly troubled by it.

We are all of us surrounded by wild claims, ideological nonsense, misrepresentations and downright lies. But it is not for the state, or assemblies of the scientific great and good, to pronounce on what may or may not be published.

So challenge Durkin, and show him up as the dissembler he undoubtedly is. But win the battle by force of argument. The data are on the side of those arguing that human beings are largely responsible for current climate change, and do not require backing up with bullying tactics.

But this is only part of it. My drawing the SMC and associated lobby groups into the discussion has led to me being accused slandering Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre. Given the respect the SMC is accorded within the science community, I can understand the sensitivity, but I have to wonder how much my accusers know about their friends.

Fiona Fox was a prolific contributor to the RCP’s Living Marxism magazine and monthly review journal. In December 1995 Fox had published in LM, under the pseudonym “Fiona Foster”, an article entitled “Massacring the truth in Rwanda”.This essay led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Africa and the west, and even the Nazi-hunting Wiesenthal Centre entered the fray to denounce Fox.

In her LM writings, Fiona Fox focused largely on Ireland, and was for a time head of the Irish Freedom Movement: a front for the RCP that was vocal in its support for the “armed struggle”. The RCP opposed the peace process from the start.

The transformation of Fox into a science pundit is fascinating, especially given that she has no scientific qualifications. Fox’s professional background, like that of many of her RCP associates, is in political spinning and PR.

If the SMC is more ‘moderate’ than its RCP-affiliated sister organisations, that is down to its association with the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Lord Dick Taverne and other dignitaries.

It comes across to me as a bit like the social networking site MySpace, where one can set up a personal page and add, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “friend”. Protocol and precedent dictates that one is unlikely to have the friendship rejected.

One of the SMC’s favourite topics is genetic engineering (GM). Almost all the GM stories that come out of the SMC are strongly in favour of the technology. I personally am critically pro-GM, but I have to say that much of the propaganda published by certain science and industry lobby groups leaves me cold. George Monbiot, with whom I seldom agree, was quite right to highlight the SMC’s vicious attacks on GM critics. Politics dressed up with a little science is a dangerous thing, and inimical to critical thinking.

The Science Media Centre, Sense about Science and other associated organisations are political lobby groups, not credible science outreach initiatives, advocacy groups or media agencies. There may have been, and may still be, a few respectable human beings involved with the SMC, but the evidence is overwhelming regarding the true nature of those pulling the strings.

I may be seriously prejudiced againt ultra-left claptrap, but the simple fact is that ultra-leftists’ behaviour today is as bad as it ever was. In the case of the RCP, they are growing old disgracefully and are quite prepared to use black propaganda against their opponents (i.e., pretty much everyone other than those who fund them, pharmaceutical and agri-chemical corporations included).

Another environmentalist writer whose honour I am prepared to defend, even though I disagree with his anti-GM views, is Ronan Bennett. They way in which Fiona Fox attacked Bennett is absolutely disgraceful. Ronan Bennett and (Guardian Editor) Alan Rusbridger’s “Fields of Gold” drama on GM was in my view flawed, but they did not deserve the attacks orchestrated by Fox.

What annoys me most about all this is how public scientific discourse is fast degenerating to a level set by the worst elements of the scientifically-illiterate media and chattering classes.

Returning briefly to the subject of climate science, I have to ask why the SMC has done so little to highlight what is probably the most important scientific issue of our time, and one so exposed to anti-science lobbying. I can find only one press release published by the SMC prior to 2006 that mentions climate change. When investigative journalist Andy Rowell first raised the SMC’s neglect of climate change, I was reluctant to believe him. It really is most odd, given that climate science has been a hot topic since well before the establishment of the SMC.

David Miller of the Stirling Media Research Institute is another critic of the SMC. Miller commented that the SMC has made much of its charitable status, yet its charity number is the same as that of the Royal Institution. And although there is a funding cap on individual donations to the SMC, 70% of its total funding comes from businesses which could be said to have similar interests. That need not in itself a problem if it is handled properly, but in the case of the SMC I do not think it is.

My mistake today in the Psi-com discussion was to not focus exclusively on the open letter to Durkin, and its calls for what can only be described as censorship. But I was so struck by the irony of those who claim that climate-change is due to human influence failing to see that the object of their opprobrium and some of their science media allies are political bedfellows. And the politics in question are truly bizarre.

I think I’ll leave Sense about Science for another day.