Scientists, you are fallible. Get off the pedestal and join the common herd

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What any layman must find alarming is the paranoia and exclusivity of the climate change community. The preparation of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was apparently like that of a party manifesto. Data was suppressed and criticism ignored. The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, dismissed sceptics as adherents of “voodoo science”. Dark hints were made of commercial interest and Holocaust denial.

Now barely a week passes without another of the “thousands and thousands of papers” Pachauri calls in evidence having its peer-review credentials questioned. Their authors may plead that the evidence remains strong and theirs is no more than what lawyers call “noble cause corruption”. Anyone reading the University of East Anglia emails might conclude they would say that, wouldn’t they. Yet Pachauri this week issued a Blairite refusal of all regrets for the chaos into which his sloppiness has plunged his organisation.

Climatology is not the only scientific discipline whose dirty linen is flapping in the wind. The wildly exaggerated flu scares promoted over the past decade by virologists and their friends in government have so undermined trust in epidemiology that people are refusing flu vaccination. In the case of the MMR scare, it took London’s Royal Free Hospital a shocking 10 years to investigate the scientists responsible, and the General Medical Council to discipline them.

Last week 14 stem cell researchers accused the science journals on which their reputation (and money) depends of corrupting the peer-review process. They protested at their papers being sent for vetting to known rivals. “Papers that are scientifically flawed or comprise only modest technical increments often attract undue profile,” they said, while original new material was delayed or suppressed. Sending research papers to rivals in a field of potential profitability is like asking General Motors to pass judgment on the latest Ford.

Science enjoys extraordinary privilege in Britain. The media treats it with the deference of a new clerisy. The BBC devotes exhaustive and uncritical ­coverage to its most obscure doings. Melvyn Bragg dances attendance on the Royal Society. Carol Vorderman is recruited by David Cameron to teach the Tories maths. Fairs and prizes are showered on budding scientists. There are no young bankers of the year, no young management consultants, but young scientists galore. The Times newspaper even boasts a column with the desperate title, Sexy Maths.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. But the public has been asked to put faith in a single profession that it cannot sustain. It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

Criticise any field of science these days and you grow accustomed to such gentilities of academic discourse from the laboratory cloister as, “How dare you”, “Get off our patch” and “Jenkins, you are a grade-one ­arsehole”. If you report those who regard wind energy as a costly irrelevance to global warming, you cannot discern from the abuse who does and does not have a financial interest in it. (The same is true of blogs.) If you ­question anti-nuclear scaremongering, the threats are little short of “We know where your children live”.

Two decades of uncritical flattery appear to have eroded what should be science’s central tenets: questioning evidence and challenging assumptions. In the bizarre case of the Himalayan glacier, enough climate change believers wanted cataclysm to be true for none of them to question the evidence, however implausible. Hence the scientist who told a New York Times reporter: “You are about to experience ‘the Big Cutoff’ from those of us who believe we can no longer trust you.”

My acceptance of the human causation of global warming has, as yet, not been dimmed by the shenanigans of the IPCC or the chicanery of the University of East Anglia. Nor is the reality of flu undermined by the World Health Organisation and its allies in the drugs industry. Nor should stem cell research be balked by the shortcomings of peer review. I can read the material myself.

What is alarming is the indifference of the leaders of science to the damage done to their cause. The top professional body, The Royal Society, has shown no inclination to judgment on the climate change controversy. Its ­website remains a bland cheerleader for the IPCC alarmists. The Royal Society took no steps of which I am aware to investigate the scandal of pandemic epidemiology, or the allegations against stem cell peer review. Ethics is not a strong suit of so-called big science. It gets in the way of money.

Science demands, and gets, a weight of expectation. It wants the public to regard its role in society and the economy as axiomatic – with no obligation to prove it. Government buys into this. While the humanities and even social sciences are dismissed as “consumption goods”, science is an “investment in our future”. A student of English or history is a drone, but a student of science is a hero of the state.


If global warming is as catastrophic as its champions in the science community claim – and as expensive to rectify – its evidence must surely be cross-tested over and again. Yet it has been left to freelancers and wild-cat bloggers to challenge the apparently rickety temperature sequences on which warming alarmism has been built.

No professional body is checking all this. Assertions are treated as scientific fact even when they come from such lobbyists as the World Wildlife Fund (on whose politics see Raymond Bonner’s At the Hand of Man). If their conclusions are wrong, they are demanding money with false menaces. If they are right, their abuse of evidence and political naivety jeopardises life on earth. The chief government scientist, John Beddington, might have opined last week that “there is fundamental uncertainty about climate change predictions”. What is he going to do about it?

I regard journalism as fallible and its regulation inadequate. But at least, like most professions, it has some. Only when science comes off its pedestal and joins the common herd will it see the virtue in self-criticism. Until then, sceptics must do the job as best they can.