I really like Dr Brian Cox. I always look forward to watching him on television. He irritates some people, and I understand why, but as a communicator of both the principles and wonder of science he is fantastically adept. He once made a programme on entropy, a notoriously difficult subject, which friends of mine with only the most passing interest in science understood and enjoyed. I very much hope he goes on doing this wonderful work.
But in the second episode of the otherwise excellent Scientific Britannica, which aired recently on the BBC, there was a scene with Cox discussing peer review and the building of scientific consensus, (especially in the context of global warming) with Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. One of the remarkable things was that as part of the same program Cox covered the importance of publishing your method and data for others to check, and even using a red team – blue team approach to improve the validity of experimental results: exactly the sort of rigour that most climate scientists have jumped through hoops to avoid. As someone who rejects the probability of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, I found it almost agonising to watch this sequence. This was not just because I disagreed with what was said, but because it was Cox saying it, and he’s a scientist (a CERN physicist!), and usually for me to flat-out think such a scientist is wrong about a major scientific issue goes dead against the grain.
Now, I think of myself as a rational person. I utterly reject mysticism and the paranormal. I do not believe in homeopathy, creationism, UFOs or moon landing hoaxes. Indeed, on these subjects I vigorously make my views known when I can, while avoiding coming across as a bore or a zealot. I fully accept that smoking causes cancer and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I cannot think of a single other important subject on which I disagree with orthodox science. I grew up watching Attenborough and Sagan, eagerly soaking up not just individual topics but the underlying message: that the universe is understandable, and quantifiable, and the way to do this is through science.
And now I stand bracketed with the kooks and cranks I so dislike. I will admit there have been times when, presented with a room full of people all agreeing on the coming dire effects of global warming, I have held my peace. Perhaps this makes me a coward. There is certainly no other scientific subject on which I would keep silent in such circumstances. I think it is perhaps not that ‘deniers’ are described as being simply wrong, but that we are tarred as also being uncaring, selfish and strangely malignant. It’s as if we are children, caught pulling the wings off butterflies but still denying our guilt.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that I am simply more intelligent than Brian Cox, or have a deeper understanding of climate science, or am able to weight the evidence better than him. In all of these matters I am certain he would leave me standing. So perhaps I am simply wrong. I contemplate this possibility all the time, and always try to make sure I read the views of and evidence presented by those that disagree with me. Obviously there exists evidence for and against catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, some of it compelling and some doubtful in both camps. But from what I have seen, by far the greater doubt lies on the alarmist side.
There is also the fact that given an identical set of evidence, two equally eminent experts in a field of study can still reach diametrically opposite conclusions. This is comforting in the short term, but in the longer term one of them will still be shown to have been in error. In science, the truth comes out eventually.
Now, there is the possibility that Brian and I are not looking at the same set of evidence. Perhaps I am somehow better informed. In general this feels far-fetched, but maybe, as a scientist himself, he is unwilling to read beyond the usual published pal-reviewed papers, and is unaware of how badly some have been pulled apart on the internet. Maybe he is actually far better read on the subject than I am, and I just need to keep digging. At least I do have one key skill. I know and understand (and revere) the scientific method. And I have seen enough failures in and abuses of this method by those most vocally promoting climate alarmism to utterly undermine their credibility with me.
I suppose this all comes down to the seductive comfort of the appeal to authority. I am not a scientist. I have carried out no first-hand research or experimentation on the topic. I do not fully understand some of the radiative physics and statistical techniques that so often crop up when the global climate is examined. It would be terribly easy to shrug, and think, ‘Well, what do I really know?’ The problem for me is that I just can’t do this. I love science too much. I am curious, and want to know and understand the world around me for myself. And I have looked at the evidence, and I have weighed the arguments, and I cannot help the conclusion I have reached. If I were to now set that conclusion aside, and accept what I am told regardless, that would be a true betrayal of the scientific method.
And I could never do that.