Home > Miscellaneous > Andrew Neil, Melanie Phillips and ClimateGate: it cuts both ways

Andrew Neil, Melanie Phillips and ClimateGate: it cuts both ways

On the same day that Andrew Neil was joining Melanie Phillips at the vanguard of the AGW scepticism-for-rightwing-journalistic-career-enhancement lobby, I read a much more interesting article at the website of the excellent Institute of Science in Society. 

In his post, Andrew Neil is content enough to play to the crowd.  His basic argument is that the IPCC has made some claims in its literature which have not been properly peer-reviewed, and that this therefore proves that ‘the science as promulgated by the IPCC is very far from “settled” and that there are important questions still to ask.’   

Strange logic. 

To be rigorously fair to Neil, he doesn’t go as far as saying that AGW theory is total bunk.  Indeed he is careful to note that the ‘politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs and green activists’ that he suggests make up the IPCC may or may not be right’.  No loaded terms there at all!  But Neil is a journalist.  He knows his readership, and the torrent of denier comments that accompany his post fully in keeping with his figurative headline ‘The dam is breaking’. 

Compare this now to the studied calm of the I-SIS article by Dr Mae-Wan Ho and Professor Peter Saunders.  They end by concluding their support for AGW theory, but they are also quite clear that scepticism about AGW can be a healthy part of climate change research: 

Scepticism is healthy, especially when the political stakes are high in something like climate change; but it must be accompanied by a passionate commitment to the coherent whole. Contrary to the claims of Taylor and other climate sceptics, scepticism has stimulated good research on cloud formation, for example, which has long been identified as a major area of uncertainty by top climate scientists. 

But the most interesting part of the article points us towards evidence that at least some in the ‘sceptic community’ may not be  interested in such ‘passionate commitment to the coherent whole’; while there may be some perfectly justified criticism of the IPCC for the way it has set out its case based on some unsubstantiated claims, that doesn’t excuse the sceptic community from committing what, at face value, appears to be a  a much greater scientific sin: providing false and misleading data

Here’s where we enter Melanie Phillips territory. 

Here she is, in 2006, extolling the research of Henrik Svensmark, (Director of the Centre for Sun-Climate Research, Danish National Space Center) on ‘cosmic rays ‘ which ‘are known to boost cloud formation – and, in turn, reduce temperatures on Earth’. 

This work, she says: 

could well open a can of wormholes in climate-change science’ because it provides proof ‘that temperature fluctuations over the past 550 million years are more likely to relate to cosmic-ray activity than to CO2. 

Except for the small inconvenience that the ‘apparent strong correlations….have been obtained by an incorrect handling of the physical data’. 

That’s according to a 2003 paper by Peter Laut of the Technical University of Denmark. The paper is horribly complex, but the allegations include the fact that a key graph, in which Svensmark (and previous researchers on whose work he relies) seek to show correlation between the intensity of galactic cosmic rays and strength of cloud cover (leading to lower temperatures), were in fact  

extended artificially by combining into one curve into two incongruous data sets ie. two data sets representing entirely different physical qualities. 

This particular graph, says Peter Laut  

has played an important role in the scientific debate as well as in discussions conducted in the general public about possible causes of climate change. 

And that’s just one example.  There’s plenty more detail in the paper if you’ve got the energy. 

The point is not to seek to batter Svensmark’s and his colleagues’ reputation (and I don’t suppose they’re watching anyway).  As Mae-Wan Ho and Peter Saunders suggest, scepticism in itself is a good thing, and there is no particular reason to suggest that these sceptics are anything other than decent scientists using data in a way they think is acceptable, just as there is no reason to doubt Peter Laut’s intentions in challening them.  

That’s the perfectly valid cut and thrust of scientific challenge and counter-challenge. 

The point is rather that accusations of lack of scientific rigour can cut both ways in the climate change debate. 

The point is to ‘call out’ people like Melanie Phillips and now Andrew Neil, who seek to appoint themselves as guardians of the truth against what they’d like to have us believe is a crypto-communist conspiracy to push AGW theory down the throats of decent Spectator readers (though for what reason such a conspiracy might exist, I’m still not entirely clear).  

They know no more than I do about this stuff, and they need to be challenged on the use of their media power to sell a version of science which happens to suit their career-as-controversial-right-wing-journalist ends.  

Unity at Libcon does that much better than me, but I thought I should make the effort.  This climate change stuff is important. 





Categories: Miscellaneous
  1. January 28, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Andrew Neil seems a weird one. I didn’t take much notice of him, but now there’s this stuff about AGW and he’s also meant to be co-chairing, along with Michael Gove, a Spectator sponsored event on education (the ad for which amusingly shows children protesting as though that’s what the Tory plans rectify – much more likely that Tory plans cause the protests). Are the BBC allowed to keep people on the payroll who are earning money from political groups for spinning a particular (and rather disreputable) political line?

  2. Ulf Wiger
    January 28, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    For the sake of completeness, it seems highly relevant to also mention Svensmark’s response to PL’s paper and PL’s response to Svensmark’s comments.

    One might also note that Svensmark is currently involved in the CLOUD project at CERN, which aims at studying in-depth the physical process causing cosmic rays to stimulate cloud formation. Note that the purpose is not to prove the link; it is to seek to either prove or disprove it. Svensmark has said all along that statistical correlation in itself is not proof – merely an indication that it might be worthwhile to dig deeper towards a conclusive physical result.

    It may be interesting to read up on Kobayashi and Maskawa’s work, which rendered them the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics, based on a hypothesis published in 1973.

    Why the delay? Because it took 30 years of experiments to prove the hypothesis right. Maskawa himself said in an interview that it was exciting to follow the progress of the experimental physicists, but that it would have been just as exciting to be proven wrong (although that hardly would have resulted in a Nobel Prize…). This is the essence of science, IMHO.

  3. Latimer Alder
    January 29, 2010 at 4:14 am

    I’m no great lover of Andrew Neil, but it is hardly fair to allege that he is making his observations for ‘rightwing-journalistic-career-enhancement’ reasons.

    He is already 61 and was editor of the Sunday Times for 13 years. I doubt that whatever he said or opined about AGW would further enhance an already pretty successful career.

    You might just as well allege that Pachauri decided to chair the IPCC because he wanted to win the Nobel Prize..and that they don’t give those out for railway engineering.

    Seems to me that the more the AGW theorists spend time insulting those who disagree with them, the more that relatively neutral people like me think they have something to hide. If the Jones Gang had just given over the dat athat they were legally obliged to do ten years ago, they wouldn’t be in the legal doodoo that they are now.

  4. January 29, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Ulf @2: Thanks for these links. I’ll follow them and have a read. Having said that, my intention was not really to go into detail on the science, as I’ll soon be out of my depth; rather that it is to point out, as you suggest, that scepticism in sience is perfectly healthy as long as it is done with an open mind. The problem is that the right, for its own ideological reasons has sought to appropriate any science that it may thinks may favour its claims, happy to overlook inconveniences of challenge to its favoured science, but still very keen to point out the weaknesses in the the other ‘camp’.

    Latimer @3: I’m happy to concede that ‘caree’ may be the wrong word, but I’d still contend there Andrew Neil’s outpourings are are more focused on his status enhancement than they are on anything to do with bringing any new scientific knowleddge/endeavour into the public domain. I am no ‘AGW theorist, and I think it’s perfectly valid for me to point to links between pre-existing political position (esp in the case of Phillips) and the stance they choose to take up on AGW. It’s simply a shame that Andrew Neil feels the need to follow Phillips as I’d always considered him somewhat more balanced.

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