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« Quote of the day, renewables edition | Main | The COP ritual »

A royal conversion on the road to Damascus

The Guardian has a short piece in which various prominent fellows of the Royal Society discuss what they think new president Venki Ramakrishnan should do with his term of office, which kicks off soon. Most of it is rather dull, but Martin Rees's comments were interesting:

The Society should offer the public (and politicians) the best scientific assessment of controversial issues, without downplaying the uncertainties. Its policy work is crucial - and it’s good that Claire Craig, a scientist who is now one of Sir Mark Walport’s deputies, is joining the Society to head up this area of its work.

But when engaging with broader social or ethical issues, I think the Society should be wary of advocacy and should instead present options. It should encourage scientists to participate more actively in public debates on (for instance) responses to climate change, and the ethics of gene editing. But it shouldn’t take a collective stance on topics where there are seriously divergent views among experts, as well as non-experts.

This is interesting, because it suggests that Rees has undergone something of a Damascene conversion. In his his own time as President of the Royal Society, statements were issued ahead of each of the COPs, often demanding that particular policy steps be taken. And of course there was the 2007 "Climate Change Controversies" document, which told us that climate models were a "reliable guide to the future direction and magnitude of future climate change", a position which hardly overplayed the uncertainties.

If Rees is now steering a more moderate course, then that of course is to be welcomed. But it would be nice if he said publicly that the Royal Society had previously overstepped the mark. In that way, he might contribute to righting some of the wrongs that were done as a result. As it is, the damage - both to society, and to the reputation of the Royal Society - is still being done.

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Reader Comments (21)

But it shouldn’t take a collective stance on topics where there are seriously divergent views among experts, as well as non-experts.
Without a definition of the word "seriously" the scope of this statement is undefined.

Nov 30, 2015 at 10:28 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

... and debates on responses to climate change suggest the weasels are still doing a bit of squeaking.
But still: "more rejoicing over one sinner....," etc. He may well have seen a chink of light.

Nov 30, 2015 at 10:47 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

I suspect that he may have realised that the public, in general, are not quite as stupid as he & his esteemed colleagues at the RS thought we were after all! Notwithstanding the obvious reduced Solar activity, which even the Wet Office has been forced to admit may have an affect on the Earth's climate, something which it had previously told us all it could not do!

Nov 30, 2015 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

' But it shouldn’t take a collective stance on topics where there are seriously divergent views among experts'

I hate to burst your ecclesiastical bubble, but there is no diversity of scientific opinion on climate change.

Please remind yourself that 97% of organ grinders (who expressed a preference) say their monkeys believe we are all going to die from human created CO2.

Nov 30, 2015 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

' And of course there was the 2007 "Climate Change Controversies" document, which told us that climate models were a "reliable guide to the future direction and magnitude of future climate change", a position which hardly overplayed the uncertainties.'

'Underplayed', surely?

Nov 30, 2015 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Another misuse of the word 'expert'.

Nov 30, 2015 at 11:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Ah, of course the get out is where there is serious divergent views. As these guys believe there is no divergence on Mann Made Global Warming (TM) then there is no requirement for these clowns to not wade in to support what ever bollocks that is being proposed to destroy Western Civilisation based on models.


Nov 30, 2015 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Yes JamesG, my particular bugbear.

When did expert come to mean: someone who shouts loudly and is repeatedly wrong.

Call them what they are, Climate Astrologers (or my preferred Climate Clowns).

Nov 30, 2015 at 12:12 PM | Registered CommenterSimonW

Don't expect any change in RS climate policy from Claire Craig:

"Claire Craig from Government Office for Science explained that she can’t discuss the graph of changing global temperature every time a policy decision is needed, and she can’t wait for models to be perfect."

from here:

Nov 30, 2015 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Of course he may have had a damascene conversion...or he may just be playing a neat double-cross: come over all neutral and balanced to enhance the RS credibility - while not changing his actual position at all. It points to greater 'fairness' and therefore plausibility (rather than the RS being choc-full of extreme eco-whackjobs) - which then actually consolidates his position rather than weakens it.

Nov 30, 2015 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterCheshireRed

The sorry behaviour of Rees, and other recent El Presidentes of the Royal Society, in trampling all over its traditions of not taking political positions, and of 'taking no one's word for it' will take some repairing. If this recent statement by Rees is a straw revealing some gentle zephyr of change in that little corner of the establishment, then hooray! But they have a big job ahead of them.

Nov 30, 2015 at 1:22 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Whoever is behind the RS twitter account does not seem to have got the memo about being wary of advocacy:

Join #BackClimateAction tweetathon today & find out what we’re doing on climate change

How do scientists know that recent #climate change is largely caused by human activities? #BackClimateAction

Nov 30, 2015 at 1:25 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Good grief, PM – the link leads on to little more than political propaganda by the Royal Soc at #backclimataction! This is what Nullius in verba means – believe us, we are not really trying to scare you… except we are? I had always thought it could be translated to: “Take no-one’s word for it.” As I have pointed out a few times already, today, there is no link whatsoever between CO2, global temperature rises or man-made emissions.

Nov 30, 2015 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Martin Rees didn't get where he is today without being on the right side of the argument - whichever it is at the time

Nov 30, 2015 at 2:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterCBBE

Suspect the RS has got plenty of heat from a minority of their members, Dissenters would be quite vocal as they would be scientifically accomplished in their fields, and not too happy about an utter prostitution of the scientific method.

Seems like good news to me. Admittedly no one in the whole wide world really cares what the RS says, its just a supper club for social climbing scientists.

Dec 1, 2015 at 2:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterBill

It's about time the wider science establishment realised that climate science shenanigans are poisoning the whole of science.

As an engineer who has had to develop controls to maintain temperature stability in systems where there are external influences and demand fluctuates it is inconceivable that the natural climate system could be dominated by anything other than negative feedback. If the climate had prominent positive feedback and the associated 'tipping points' it would have spiralled out of control a very long time ago.

If it's so obvious to me, it must be obvious to scientists in many disciplines that the basic premise of CAGW is nonsense, that models are nothing more than an expression of the theory programmed into them and that climate science, as overseen by the UN and IPCC, is dishonest and unscientific. Yet they remain silent, either because they don't realise (stupidity) or they're complicit (dishonesty).

Regardless I'm not interested in anything liars or fools have to say and, these days, that seems to have enveloped the whole of science.

Today, on the radio, I heard a statement about how a scientific study (unrelated to climate) had reached a particular conclusion. My first though was "it's probably not true, they'll be lying or exaggerating to get more funding"

Dec 1, 2015 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered Commenterjaffa


Richard Horton - editor of The Lancet

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices.

The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations.

Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

Dec 1, 2015 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff


"If the climate had prominent positive feedback and the associated 'tipping points' it would have spiralled out of control a very long time ago."

Exactly. When I realised climate science needed feedbacks to operate and no one knew if the feedbacks were positive or negative or even what they were or how they worked, I threw my toys out the pram and became a confirmed denier.

I found this out in a 'conversation' with two climate scientists who hadn't noticed they had trapped themselves. Ultimately it doesn't matter to them because they get paid for messing around with computers anyway. There's no harm in that, it's the politics that causes the harm.

Dec 1, 2015 at 2:17 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff


"There's no harm in that"

Climate scientists playing with computers are causing harm, they're enabling the politicians, they're supporting a potentially dangerous big-green agenda, they're providing the justification which is whipping up a frenzy among the masses of clueless self-loathing useful-idiots that seem to live to protest.

The science community is to blame because they're allowing this to be done in their name, they could slap it down but they do nothing.

Dec 2, 2015 at 12:41 AM | Unregistered Commenterjaffa


It's basically journalists who are doing the lying along with a few designated propagandists like Mann, Schmidt and Kevin Andersen . Scientists are doing what they're told and keeping their heads down because that's how employees have to behave nowadays.

Much of the university system is a scam nowadays. With over 50% of the population going to university, and not necessarily the smartest 50% by any means, you now have a lot of graduates who would have left school with no qualifications in the 1970s. How does that work ?

I spoke to 2 local physics lecturers with stories of students who are so stupid, they seem to have gone straight from primary school. I spoke to the head of the arts faculty at great length who sat and shook his head as I told him of my experiences. It happened to me before I quit. There was no point in whistleblowing b/c the system is so totally corrupt, it couldn't be fixed. Corruption is how it works.

I ran a successful campaign to save a local listed building. What I accidentally stumbled upon was something so anomalous that as far as I'm concerned they can blow it up before will get involved with the council again. Much of this is caused by low quality / low intelligence, arrogant dodgy people with degrees. It's happening all over Britain. Rochdale, Mid Stafford, Rotherham, Cumbria. On and on it will continue as the education race to the bottom continues.

Complaints to the GMC have double over the last five years as new doctors appear to graduate from the Kate and Gerry McCann school of medicine and child care.

Dec 2, 2015 at 3:16 AM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Rees says "As Paul Nurse has emphasised, active scientists are the best judges of what problems are likely to prove most fruitful and timely. In choosing a research topic, they are staking a big chunk of their working lives and their reputation. Those who become Fellows of the Royal Society will have shown better-than average judgement in this regard."

Wow. Arrogant much? So you're only a good scientist, worthy of being listened to, if you choose, sexy, high-profile fields? No wonder the RS is enthralled by climate scientists.

Dec 2, 2015 at 7:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterClunking Fist

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