Skip to Content

James Delingpole

‘Post-normal science’ is perfect for climate demagogues — it isn’t science at all

James Delingpole says You Know It Makes Sense

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

No it’s OK, I didn’t mind one teeny tiny bit that Matt Ridley wrote an entire Spectator cover story on Climategate and the blogosphere last week without once mentioning the name of the brilliant Spectator journalist who broke the story on his Telegraph blog, and popularised the name Climategate, and got 1.5 million hits in one week, and whose anti-eco-fascist bulletins now have a massive following from readers all around the world who keep sending him emails like ‘Thank you for saving us from the horrors of ManBearPig’ and (I’m not making this up) ‘Someone should put up a James Delingpole statue in Trafalgar Square’. Because if I did it would be really petty, wouldn’t it?

What does bother me, though, is the number of people who imagine that Climategate was only ever just a little local difficulty involving a few men in anoraks at some grim fenland redbrick. Or that the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ still stands that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) represents the greatest danger of our time. Or that the integrity of institutions like the Royal Society, the Met Office and the Hadley Centre is not in doubt. Or that there’s nothing wrong or scary or downright suicidal about the Cameron Conservatives’ lunatic green agenda. Or that there must be some truth in this man-made global warming thing — or why else would so many scientists believe in it?

Let me deal with that last assumption first, because it embodies the most basic and perhaps the most dangerous misconception in the entire global warming debate: that there is this thing called ‘the science’. And that it is ‘settled’.

Science is never settled. That’s not how it works. ‘The science’ is no more nor less than a series of hypotheses, none of which lasts any longer than it takes some impertinent, iconoclastic upstart to come along, prove it wrong, and replace it with some fancy new improved hypothesis of his own. As Karl Popper argued, in order to be properly scientific a theory (or hypothesis) must be ‘falsifiable’: that is, it must be capable of being proven false through observation or experiment. In other words, a useful theory holds the key to its own destruction.

A good example of falsifiability in action is the one often cited by our Aussie friend Professor Ian Plimer: stomach ulcers. For many years, it was an article of faith throughout the medical and scientific community that stomach ulcers were brought on by stress. When, in 1982, two Australian scientists, Robin Warren and Barry J. Marshall, came up with the novel hypothesis that the real cause of these ulcers was the helicobacter pylori bacterium they were laughed out of court. Until, that is, Marshall drank a petri dish of the stuff, gave himself an ulcer, and ended up winning (with Warren) the Nobel Prize for Medicine.


What those two Aussies had effected was an unusually rapid and dramatic version of what Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, called a ‘paradigm shift’. Normally, this process takes longer. The paradigm is the current, more-or-less universally accepted world-view held by the scientific community. A shift takes place when ‘anomalies’ are niggled away at by a growing body of dissenting scientists, leading to a period of uncertainty and foment (‘crisis’), which in turn leads to the creation of a new paradigm.

In the last decade there has been a paradigm shift over AGW. Or rather there would have been, had not a powerful and unscrupulous cabal in the scientific community refused to allow science to progress in the normal way. The theory that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions cause global temperatures inexorably to increase went belly-up in 1998 when, despite all the predictions of the warmists’ sophisticated computer models, global mean temperatures stubbornly ceased to rise (and haven’t risen since).

But instead of shrugging their shoulders and trying to work on a newer, better model to explain climate change, as might have happened in Popper’s and Kuhn’s day, the warmists instead chose to cover their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and yell at anyone who disputed their increasingly holed theory: ‘Nyah nyah nyah. Not listening. We’re right. You’re not. The science is settled.’

Why did they do this? How could they do this? Did they no longer feel any pride in their traditional role as fearless seekers-after-truth? What can have possessed them to toss aside so lightly principles which their forebears would have considered the sine qua non of good scientific practice?

Simple. In 1991 a Marxist philosopher called Jerome R. Ravetz had helped to invent a seductive and dangerous new concept called ‘post-normal science’ (PNS). No longer was it considered essential that scientists strive after objectivity. Their new duty, Ravetz held, was not to ‘truth’ but to what he called ‘quality’. And by ‘quality’ he meant something more akin to rhetoric — the ability to manipulate evidence and present it in such a way as to achieve particular political ends.

Post-normal science and the AGW movement were made for one another. No need for any of that tedious objectivity; no need for careful observation or the risk of frustration through falsification. All that mattered now was the quality of the ‘narrative’, the scariness of the future scenarios cooked up by computer models which — as the hockey stick curve demonstrated — could predict for you whatever you wanted them to predict.

One of the great exponents of post-normal science is the Tyndall Centre’s Mike Hulme. In the wake of Climategate, Hulme has very successfully positioned himself at the likeable, accessible, undogmatic centre-ground between the warmists and the sceptics. But his views on the proper function of science could scarcely be more extreme.

Hulme once wrote: ‘The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved… It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change — the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and materials flows that climate change reveals — to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.’

‘Climate change’, in other words, has little if anything to do with science. (Or as Mike Hulme once put it: ‘Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science.’) It’s not a genuine problem to be solved, but a handy excuse — with a fashionable green glow — to advance a particular social and political agenda under the cloak of ecological righteousness and scientific authority.

After Climategate, we are entitled to ask: ‘What scientific authority?’ It’s all very well for someone like Lord Rees to defend the Royal Society’s position on global warming by brandishing ‘Nullius in verba’ as if it were still the kitemark of irrefutable truth. But the fact is his institution’s integrity lies in tatters precisely because it has done the thing its motto says it never does: it listened to a coterie of post-normal scientists who were more interested in political activism than objective truth — and went and took their word for it.


Show comments
Close