Nobody expects the Scientific Inquisition*

The following article was commissioned by the Guardian for Comment is Free, and published on 3 May 2007.

A recent reaction to a climate change denial documentary broadcast on primetime TV displays contempt for free speech, and political ineptitude.

Bob Ward, a former press officer at the Royal Society, has published an open letter to Martin Durkin, maker of a documentary film broadcast recently on Channel 4 television that denies human influence on climate change. The letter is signed by a number of climate scientists and other academics with an interest in climate change.

I have no time for Durkin or his film, but take issue with Ward’s letter, which, as reported by David Adam in the Guardian, demands that the DVD of Durkin’s documentary be either withdrawn or corrected of its scientific errors.

The open letter states that “…it is in the public interest for adequate quality control to be exercised over information that is disseminated to the public to ensure that it does not include major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence and interpretations of it by researchers.”

If Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle DVD should be withdrawn or corrected, what about Al Gore’s hyperbolic An Inconvenient Truth, soon to be distributed to all schools in England courtesy of Her Majesty’s Government?

Ward complains that Wag TV, the production company responsible for Durkin’s film, will not be bound by any Ofcom ruling against Channel 4. Channel 4 is restricted by a code of conduct when it comes to what may be broadcast, but Wag TV as an independent, commercial entity is free to distribute the DVD, and I’m not sure how it could be otherwise.

We are all of us surrounded by wild claims, ideological nonsense, misrepresentations and downright lies. But it is no business of the state, or assemblies of the scientific great and good, to pronounce on what may or may not be published.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.

Durkin is reported by Raphael Satter in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to have acknowledged two scientific errors, and said that these will be corrected in the DVD. That is an astute move by Durkin, but Ward et al. demand that all the errors be removed, and then declare that if this were done, the documentary would fall to pieces.

I’m not so sure about this. Durkin could remove all the blatant scientific errors, and still make a superficial case based on issues that are not clear-cut, and over which there remains some scholarly debate.

Reality is ever thus, yet given the increasing predictive power of climate models backed by hard data, the majority view of climate change is the only credible one to take. But try explaining that to a mass audience. It can and should be done, but not in the combative rhetorical style beloved of the media and a number of scientific protagonists.

Ward is quoted in Satter’s article as saying: “Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements. Somebody has to stand up for the public interest here.”

Strong stuff, and very, very wrong. Free speech does indeed extend to coming out with any old rubbish, and people – even highly intelligent ones – frequently do. Others are free to point out factual errors, and in doing so attempt to convince the masses of the truth.

Like Bob Ward, I complained to the broadcasting regulator about Durkin’s documentary. I did so not because I object to the line taken by Durkin, but rather because the filmmaker offered no space for opinions contrary to his own. The documentary was pure polemic subsidised by the taxpayer.

But Ward is going much further than a complaint to Ofcom, both in his open letter and discussions surrounding it. Regarding the demand for “quality control”, it is not clear who would be the adjudicators, and even if Ward et al. are right about the science (I am convinced they are), this is not a proper way for scientists to behave.

My principal objection to Ward’s open letter is that it shows contempt for free speech, and an unwarranted lack of confidence in the ability of the public to think critically. A secondary objection is that it displays political ineptitude, and may prove counterproductive.

*With apologies to Monty Python.