Science under attack

I had planned another subject for todays blog, but having watched the recent Horizon programme on science under attack on BBC iplayer (still available for those with a British IP address) I thought it tied in rather neatly with why I decided to start this blog.

In the first place the idea came to me to start a blog as a way of practicing my own writing skills. Then secondly I thought I might have something interesting to say. When people find out I’m a climate scientist I often get all sorts of questions about climate change ranging from the basic (is it really happening?) to the more nuanced and complex (how do models work?) to, unfortunately, yet another repetition of the usual climate myths (see below). This blog should be a small window on the world where I write about things that interest me and hopefully are interesting to others.

Cartoon from the Union of Concerned Scientists

As I looked in to the world of blogging, and in particular into blogging on climate related themes, a huge number of blogs came up. Unfortunately, many of them are rather weak on science and very overtly political. In fact a quick scan of the google hits brings up rather more blogs and websites by what might (kindly) be called “sceptics” (or otherwise known as “deniers”) than blogs created by scientists. There is some really good material on the web dealing with climate related issues, for example the excellent Realclimate.org blog but in many other places there is a lot of dross and the same empty myths endlessly recycled and repeated (for example, “it’s the little ice age”, “it was warmer in the Medieval period”, “it’s sun spots” etc etc), largely I’m afraid due to lazy and/or politically motivated journalism. All of these common myths have been explained over and over again, usually by people far better qualified, and far more skilled in writing than I, yet somehow they seem to persist.

As the Horizon documentary made clear, this is a source of immense frustration to many in the climate field, including myself, so I feel the time has come to stick my head above the parapet so to speak and start broadcasting my own opinions. At least I hope it will be a small addition to the counterbalancing work done by people like Real Climate and maybe it will help open some minds.

The same documentary blamed scientists for being poor communicators and I would tend to agree with that, it’s hard to talk about uncertainties in models for examples when even the word uncertainty is used very differently in science than in everyday life. On the other hand, this article on communication in the journal Nature by Tim Radford suggests that in fact scientists can be good communicators and he cites such luminaries as Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould and even Richard Dawkins (although I fear the latter has alienated a large part of the audience with his agressive approach to atheism). These are all great examples of great communicators of science, and though I fear I couldn’t possibly get close to their talent, I hope that this blog will help to develop my skills further.

One further point, Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s excellent bad science columnist is a witty, knowledgeable and hard working advocate of good science who works tirelessly against vested interests, quackery, big pharma and other ‘enemies of reason’. In this post about the Copenhagen climate summit he explores the psychology of climate science and why it is so difficult to communicate. He points out that

‘climate science is difficult. We could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour: the experimental techniques of epidemiology and other disciplines, how they’ve been misrepresented, the results, strengths, and weaknesses of the key studies. Climate change will take two days of your life, for a relatively superficial understanding: if you’re interested, I’d recommend the IPCC website itself, where they have a series of three executive summaries for policy makers, which are perfectly good pieces of humourless popular science writing.’

This is very true and I am certainly not going to use this blog to explain all issues related to climate change research. In fact, I aim to produce pieces about all sorts of scientific curiosities, natural wonders and society’s response to these. I have imposed two other conditions on myself. Firstly, I should not spend more than an hour on any one post and secondly, I want to post at least twice a week. I’ve broken the latter already, but thanks to my friend Heather I’ve been inspired to try again.

Enjoy.

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2 thoughts on “Science under attack”

  1. The USA at the moment is the single biggest block to any agreement on measures to reduce greenhouse gases. All the special interest groupes that would stand to lose in financial terms from any reductions continue to block any effective legislation. Yet the USA would be one of the largest losers in any change in climate.
    How can one of the largest food producers in the world not see what any change in climate will do to agiculture. Water supply problems and the effect on crops would put many farmers out of business. There are already large areas of America with water supply problems.
    We need the farming states to take on the coal and oil producers and push legislation through. I am sure there are more farmers and food producers in the USA than there are coal and oil barons.
    Recent studies have shown that the Sahara was created by the rains in Africa moving further down the continent. Not a huge change in climate, just a different distibution of rainfall.
    Come on you farmers show us what you are made of. You could save the would as well.

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  2. I find it somewhat ominous when a biologist, and one involved in gene research, like Sir Tom Nurse should expose himself in a TV program like “Science Under Attack”, apparently taking the side of the climatologists arguing the case that climate change is caused by human activity.
    I noticed how the public’s concern over climate-change, vaccines, GM crops, and the treatment of medical conditions like Aids, were all lumped together and explained by “an inability to explain ourselves properly”.
    I am a weak sceptic regarding climate change: I am convinced that it is happening, and
    is partially caused by burning fossil fuels, but I am not yet convinced that it is going on at the rate that is claimed, or that it will continue at this rate. These details are important since they affect the decisions that governments must make about transport and power generation, and if done too hastily, we can end up with the wrong decisions, which bring other risks and considerable costs.
    But let’s look at the mistakes the biologists have made since 1980.
    When AIDS started, it was blamed on a breakdown in the immune system after repeated exposure to the body fluids of multiple other individuals, and the fact that a virus was involved was realised much later. Consequently, no attempt was made to prevent homosexuals from donating blood, and many thousands of haemophiliacs died in the UK from infection.
    Mad cow disease (BSE) occurred because previous solvent-treatment techniques in treating carcasses to make animal feed were abandoned, in the belief that biologists knew all about infectious agents, and that low-temperature treatments would kill any bacteria or viruses. They neglected prions, even though these had been covered in the biological literature. As a result, 270 people died horribly from CJD, and many specialists believe that more may die in the future. Huge numbers of cows (I believe it was 3 million) were slaughtered, at huge expense to farmers and the buying public.
    GM is being used in the West not for benign reasons such as improving crop resistance to drought, but instead for improving its resistance to herbicides, thus allowing farmers to spray them onto crops whilst in full growth, to kill weeds growing amongst the plants. The result is that the crops contain elevated levels of the herbicides, which animal experiments show to damage many systems in the body. In a number of experiments, animal genes are being introduced into plants, and this must at least carry the possibility the plants and their descendants could create prions that would harm animals and humans.
    According to respectable sources, vaccines, particularly for polio, have often contained chicken tissue from being cultured in eggs, and this tissue has been found to contain viruses that cause cancer in chickens.
    It now seems to be accepted that the medical fad for low fat diets over the last 20 years has resulted in excessive consumption of carbohydrates, with problems of obesity, diabetes, and elevated blood pressure, lumped under the diagnosis “Syndrome-X”. The food producers keenly supported this fad since crop-based carbohydrate is cheaper to buy than meat.
    Although researchers in evolutionary theory like to bombard us with TV shows and popular articles which all claim that sexual reproduction is the major factor to consider in genetic changes, the horizontal transfer of DNA between bacteria is apparently widespread. I quote Wikipedia, which says “It should also be noted that the process may be a hidden hazard of genetic engineering as it may allow dangerous transgenic DNA to spread from species to species.”

    Despite his calls upon scientists to be more open, Sir Tom Nurse’s programme failed to make any mention of these past and possibly future biological disasters. Instead we were shown a petulant youth stamping on crops, in contrast to the whizz-bang 3D displays coming out of NASA, which are obviously very “cool”.

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