Published April 8, 2014
In a report published last week in London, Andrew Miller, the Labour Member of Parliament who chairs the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, urged the BBC and other media to stop giving time and space to ‘climate change deniers’, and to accompany any appearance of them with a health warning denouncing their views. What the deniers are peddling, Miller argues, is not science but politics, and the public should be informed that their views are rejected by 97% of scientists. Just where the figure of 97% came from Miller does not say; but he is adamant that all government ministers should acquaint themselves with the science of climate change, and be prepared to speak with one voice, accepting collective responsibility for the official opinion, which will be his opinion and the opinion of his committee.
The invocation of collective responsibility is revealing. For this implies that the orthodoxy Miller adheres to is, after all, not simply a matter of science, but a ‘party line’ that must be supported for the sake of policy. If it is the science that concerns us, then dissenting voices must surely be part of the data, and not dismissed out of hand on the authority of the ‘97%’. No doubt, at the time when Galileo stood before the Inquisition, 97% of scientists were prepared to assert that the sun goes round the earth. Luckily for Galileo, his humiliations were not crowned by an appearance on the BBC with a health warning strung round his neck.
What most struck me in Andrew Miller’s words, quoted in The Times was his insistence that all ministers should acquaint themselves with the climate change science. As someone who, in a modest way, has tried to do this, all I can say is that the attempt will not leave much time for the business of government. In the course of writing Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Oxford University Press, 2011) I studied the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and the literature that has grown around them, much of it supportive, much of it also critical. I concluded that ‘climate change science’ is not one thing, but the amalgamation of many disciplines and that its predictions, such as they are, depend at every point on disputed ‘models’ rather than established theories. The greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half, and implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm. But will other things be equal? That is where the disagreements begin. There is geological and fossil evidence of major and rapid fluctuations in temperature, prior to the relatively stable Holocene period in which we are living, and the causes remain uncertain. Greenhouse gas emissions are only one factor in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation on which the earth’s temperature depends. And among other relevant factors there are some for which the science is incomplete or in its infancy – such as the fluctuations in solar energy, which probably had much to do with those brief but devastating ice ages in the recorded history of Europe. In these circumstances, for a politician to insist on ‘collective responsibility’ for a particular view of our planet’s future, and to describe that orthodoxy as ‘science’, is an affront to human intelligence. It is also a reminder of those previous attempts to mask ideological censorship as scientific proof, inspired by the ‘scientific socialism’ of Marx.
The Inquisitors who threatened Galileo had a point. After all, they were guardians of a volatile community of religious believers, whose happiness depended on their faith. They could not treat the prevailing orthodoxy lightly when (as they thought) the moral order depended on it, and all would-be challenges had to be scrutinized not only for their scientific basis but also for their social impact. I don’t think Mr Miller is in the same position. For although there is an undeniable religious streak to environmental activism, it is not shared by the majority of people, most of whom live by other orthodoxies than those that Miller wishes to protect from the heretics.
When it comes to the big issues of the day it is tempting to try to silence those who disagree with you and who complicate a question that you wanted to see as obvious and simple. And the easiest way to silence someone is to portray him as some kind of lunatic or extremist, a person outside the consensus of ‘reasonable’ opinion, and beyond the pale of rational argument. But the true extremist is the one who argues in that way, and who cannot entertain an opinion without wanting to protect it at all costs from those who disagree with it.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.