Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Level Climate Science

Melanie Phillips once claimed that she had, in the old Irving Kristol formulation, been “mugged by reality”. I think she sustained a head injury during the attack. She doesn’t, in any case, seem to be able to face her attacker. I wouldn’t normally write about her bizarre, frothing persona: surely most people, even Daily Mail readers, would view her as a slightly crude parody, as Steven Poole insists she is. But now her Spectator incarnation refuses to publish my comments, and I can’t let even a satiric invention get away with that.

It begins with her enthusiasm for David Bellamy. A while ago he jumped, beard first, into the global warming debate, and immediately made an idiot of himself. In 2004 he wrote a Daily Mail article with the standard discredited points – that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but a fertilizer, that the real greenhouse gas is water vapour, etc. He even touted the absurd “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine” petition, “signed by over 18,000 scientists”, including, as George Monbiot pointed out, “Ginger Spice and the cast of MASH”. In an exchange with Monbiot, Bellamy's complete lack of knowledge of global warming science became evident. For instance, to make his case on glaciers he had apparently relied on non-existent papers in prestigious journals, existent papers in LaRouchite journals, and, ultimately, his inability to operate a computer keyboard. He then wisely wrote to the Sunday Times announcing that he would “draw back” from this subject of which he knew nothing.

Sadly it didn’t last, and this week he was back with another self-pitying, “heretical” article informing Times readers that “the self-proclaimed consensus among scientists has detached itself from the questioning rigours of hard science”. Truth-tellers like Bellamy are victims of “McCarthyism, witch-hunts and all”. He has switched to a slightly different selection of debating points, but they are familiar enough. Ah, but the climate is cyclical anyway. And didn’t the Romans grow grapes in England? Oh, and Greenland used to be green (cue etymologically dubious assertion). On the strength of these claims we can obviously discard those “complex and often unreliable computer models” with their physics and their matching hindcasting. His points have all been dealt with, even in language a soil-fondling botanist should understand, but Bellamy has simply ignored these responses.

Naturally such a performance did not escape Mel P, forever casting around for abject stupidity to endorse. The Bellamy effusion is “glorious”. “Thank goodness” for him. He “rips into the global warming scam with unrivalled brio”. “Over and over again,” she reports, “he brings forward elementary facts which directly contradict or fatally undermine the misleading claims and sometimes totally bent predictions of man-made global warming catastrophe which masquerade as ‘research’.” So there. Even if a scientific consensus existed “it would prove nothing except the unlimited capacity of people to fall into line when their livelihoods are at stake”:

The ‘scientific consensus’ has been proved wrong over and over again; it was not long ago that it was proclaiming with the same certainty that the planet was about to freeze to extinction.

It is perhaps interesting to ponder Melanie Phillips’s understanding of the scientific method. Because the scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, no scientific consensus can “prove” anything except scientists’ self-interest. It is of course true science cannot absolutely prove anything. But if her statement has any informational content beyond this, it apparently suggests that all scientific consensus – indeed science itself – is meaningless. So what if the scientific consensus promotes certain views about gravity? The consensus has been wrong many times. And scientists do get grants for studying gravity: they’re just promoting their own interests. Who can trust these “complex” models of general relativity when all this talk of curved space-time is obvious nonsense to the ordinary decent folk in the street? (This attitude is held, of course, by the arch defender of truth from filthy pinko relativism.)

There is another scientific issue on which Mel P has historically believed herself to be almost uniquely correct, and it’s instructive because at no point did she ever acknowledge that her brave challenge to the consensus was wrong. It is of course the MMR vaccine. Her last article on the subject was titled “MMR: the façade cracks” – and yet since February 2006, and in spite of Andrew Wakefield coming before the GMC on a disciplinary hearing, she has found nothing at all to say. She no longer cares, it seems, about those poor children developing autism. She no longer cares about Wakefield having his reputation “systematically trashed” as part of a “witch-hunt”. No other conclusion is possible unless, of course, she changed her view on the risks of the vaccine. But surely if she’d changed her view this defender of objective truth would at least have admitted she was wrong? She had, after all, helped encourage dangerously low levels of resistance to serious diseases. But no – we heard nothing. Perhaps the final sign that evidence for anthropogenic global warming is irrefutable, even by the willfully ignorant, will be complete silence from Mel P, after a final tantrum where she insists she was right all along.

Anyhow, I originally started this because I wanted to talk about Mel’s attitude towards education (it’s hard to focus on any one part of her continent-straddling lunacy). Some of what she says has some kind of internal logic. One could, for instance, believe her pronouncements on Israel/Palestine if unable to access the empirical facts. But I cannot fathom how she manages to so blithely, and so loudly, hold logically contradictory positions simultaneously. On the one hand, regarding climate change, she believes that “[w]hat matters is not that very grand people with lots of letters after their names all agree to a proposition, but whether that proposition is actually true”. She holds that, without any relevant qualifications, she is in a position to pronounce on global warming by employing "the judgment of ordinary people". And yet yesterday she moaned that the “gold standard” A Level will be abolished, the “education system [has] imploded”, etc.

Equipped with only an English degree, Melanie Phillips has out-thought thousands of highly qualified scientists and doctors, many with those magnificent A Levels of yore. Some of them, I hear, even have degrees. The Melanie Phillips example surely proves we should at the least scrap science and maths A Levels, even if we have to ramp up numbers of English students to replace them. But as far as I can tell it is also an argument against any qualifications at all. Melanie Phillips should welcome the destruction of A Levels, for it will lead to the replacement of study and training with “the judgment of ordinary people”. And how else will we defeat the worldwide global warming conspiracy?