Matt Ridley & Politics of Bad Ideas

Every First Things reader should spend a few minutes with Matt Ridley’s “The Climate Wars’ Damage to Science,” in the current issue of Quadrant, Australia’s leading monthly.

Neither the pope nor the encyclical are mentioned. Nevertheless, Ridley’s article is supremely relevant to a full grasp of what Laudato Si signifies.  His article is entirely concerned with the corruption of science by political agendas and the funding dependent on them. It is a clear-eyed examination of the intellectual bankruptcy of the species of ideologues who have the pope’s ear, and on whose voice the moral credibility of the Church has been gambled.

Sure, we [science writers] occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience—homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

Tofim Lysenko, Soviet agronomist (c. 1930s). Photo: HIP
Tofim Lysenko, Soviet agronomist (c. 1930s). Photo: HIP

Bad ideas—i.e. Lysenkoism—that garner political support monopolize the debate:

This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses. In the 1970s, when global temperatures were cooling, some scientists could not resist the lure of press attention by arguing that a new ice age was imminent. Others called this nonsense and the World Meteorological Organisation rightly refused to endorse the alarm. That’s science working as it should. In the 1980s, as temperatures began to rise again, some of the same scientists dusted off the greenhouse effect and began to argue that runaway warming was now likely.

At first, the science establishment reacted sceptically and a diversity of views was aired. It’s hard to recall now just how much you were allowed to question the claims in those days.

As recently as ten years ago it was still possible to warn against over-heating debate:

Since then, however, inch by inch, the huge green pressure groups have grown fat on a diet of constant but ever-changing alarm about the future. That these alarms—over population growth, pesticides, rain forests, acid rain, ozone holes, sperm counts, genetically modified crops—have often proved wildly exaggerated does not matter: the organisations that did the most exaggeration trousered the most money. In the case of climate, the alarm is always in the distant future, so can never be debunked.

These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous.

Today’s climate science, as Ian Plimer points out in his chapter in The Facts, is based on a “pre-ordained conclusion, huge bodies of evidence are ignored and analytical procedures are treated as evidence”. [Climate Change: The Facts, published by Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs] Funds are not available to investigate alternative theories. Those who express even the mildest doubts about dangerous climate change are ostracised, accused of being in the pay of fossil-fuel interests or starved of funds; those who take money from green pressure groups and make wildly exaggerated statements are showered with rewards and treated by the media as neutral.

The bulk of Ridley’s essay is a menacing catalogue of scandals in which bad scientific practice is rewarded, evidence is ignored or funding threatened for research that raises questions about the pre-ordained conclusions of the climate change imams.  Reasoned dissent is greeted as blasphemy.

Climate is a chaotic system with multiple influences. As Ridley notes, human behavior is only one of many. This makes predictions extremely hazardous. The very nature of science places scientists among the least reliable forecasters. But caution is an impediment to the gravy train climate science is driving. Careers and reputations are at stake. And the traditional rigors of scientific method inhibit the intellectual posturings of self-selected, fashionable elites.

Pride is in the saddle. The Vatican, anxious to be ranked among European public intellectuals, has aligned itself with the degradation of science and the silencing of debate.

Note: Matt Ridley is a prize-winning British journalist and member of the House of Lords. He earned degrees in zoology from Eton and Oxford. You can read Ridley’s essay in its entirety online here.