A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Britain and America: divided by a common science.....

It was George Bernard Shaw who wryly observed that Britain and America are "two nations divided by a common language"; we might today add that they are divided by a common science, and that this division extends to bien pensant Europe as a whole.

Thus, when Christine Todd Whitman, the then newly-appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that Mr. Bush and the US had “no interest in implementing that treaty”, meaning the ‘global warming’ protocol signed in 1997 at Kyoto, Europe went hysterical. This was far worse than not having had sex “with that woman.” The German newspaper, Die Woche, attacked Mr. Bush as the ‘Climate Killer’. And, of course, the bitterness has rumbled on to this day, when not drowned out by the insistent drums of war and world terrorism.

To grasp fully the depths of this division, however, and the current role of Britain's Chief Scientific Officer, for example, it is vital to understand what has happened to the popular view of science in Europe over the last thirty years.

First, there was the thalidomide scandal; then followed the BSE debacle; and, more recently, we have witnessed the burning pyres of animal carcasses following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth. These events have been coupled with the rise of a radical environmentalist movement that has virtually turned itself into a 'New Age' religion, the adherents of which eschew economic growth, trade, globalisation, chemicals, change sensu lato, but, above all, the 'Evil Empire', America. They hanker after a mythical refuge of a lost ‘Golden Age’, when the world was seen as 'in balance', all food was ‘organic’, and humans were 'in harmony with Nature'. Hence why Mr. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, to some European eyes, was not simply the rejection of a mere treaty, bad as that was perceived; it was far more fundamental than this. He had blasphemed against the new religion of the European intelligentsia. America had become an apostate nation.

For, in Europe, much science, but especially soft environmental science, is no longer legitimised by the normal, cautious processes of science itself. ‘Science’ has become legitimised by what the great French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, has called the ‘social bond’.

Let me give you two examples of how this works.

It is 8.15 a.m. and you are listening to a flagship radio, or television, news programme, the quintessential voice of right-thinking metropolitan Britain. A 'white-coated scientist' is brought on to say that his recent work seems to indicate that humans may have some major influence on climate change. ‘You mean that we are definitely causing serious global warming and destroying the ozone layer’, the renowned (and slightly confused) interviewer gleefully declares, herself warming quickly to the subject. A similar white-coated scientist is then brought on the next day to report that her research has demonstrated the safety of a certain genetically modified crop. The questioning on this occasion is markedly different. Now a sceptical voice is disbelieving and aggressive: “How do you know? Surely it will affect nearby organic farms and the pollen of local beekeepers – have they been informed of your work? And [always the lazy interviewer's 'killer' question], how was your work funded – by one of the big companies, I bet?”

Put simply, you are witnessing the legitimization of ‘science’ by the prevailing 'social bond', in which an existing social myth selects the ‘science’ that is acceptable and that which is not. Often, the media will try to exclude the ‘demonized science’ completely. Indeed, some commentators have even (to their everlasting shame, I might add) argued recently for a kind of media self-censorship on counter arguments.

The second example is a real one. A couple of years ago, seven national academies of science spoke out in favour of genetic modification in agriculture – in Europe, they were vilified by the media and by Green organisations; more recently, a similar grouping came out cautiously for ‘global warming’, but they, in stark contrast, were warmly embraced.

What does this all mean for ‘global warming’, for biotechnology, and for America, where careful scientific argument is still powerful as an arbiter of progress? In America, people, in the main, rightly listen to their National Academy of Sciences. In the U.K., its equivalent, the Royal Society, is totally unknown, or roundly vilified (when in favour of biotechnology), or praised (when it cautiously supports ‘global warming’), precisely according to what is said in terms of the hegemonic social myth.

This makes any sensible popular scientific dialogue between America and Europe fraught. In Europe, scientific evidence raising doubts about the scientific and/or economic significance of ‘global warming’, or the potential dangers of GM crops, is both sub-consciously and consciously excluded from public debate by much of the Middle Class media, by many politicians, and by extreme environmentalist groups who strive to drown it out with carefully-chosen exaggerations and distortions. Recently, finer scientific minds than mine have questioned, for example, the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, the accuracy of surface temperature measurements, the little understood, but crucial, role of water vapour, the many missing variables in the simplistic climate models, and our understanding of climate history. But little of this has penetrated the carapace formed by the European 'social bond'. There are exceptions, of course, such as the admirable 'Jeremy Vine Show' on BBC Radio 2, where the dominant role of our self-appointed intelligentsia is kept firmly in check.

The truth is that most Europeans simply do not wish to hear any counter arguments, for challenging their legitimizing ‘science’ would also undermine their deeper attitudes to the car, to economic growth, to trade, to development, to globalisation, to change itself ... and, as already asserted, to the 'Evil Empire'.

This is why America, and both Russia and China for that matter, must not be cowed by UK and European rhetoric on ‘global warming’ and on biotechnology. This why America must remain open to genuine, critical science, and to economic progress. For at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol is a ‘scientific’ oxymoron: controlling human-induced emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ will not halt complex climate change and it will never produce a 'sustainable climate', the very concept of which is scientific goobledygook. And biotechnology is a useful 'tool' for an ever-changing world.

But, Americans must also be ready for the fact that, in Europe, cautious and careful science will not necessarily win the argument.

Philip, breaking out of 'social bondage'. Coffee?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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