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March 01st 2010 print

Paul Monk

The Open Society and Its Friends

Dr Monk delivered this address to the annual CEO Symposium of the Associations Forum at Noosa in February.

I invite you to consider that we are able to meet here; you are able to create and preside over your various associations; and we are able to converse without fear of interference, because we are able to exercise very basic human rights. In much of the world, those rights are abridged. They are always in danger of abridgment, because we human beings are all prone, when we feel offended or anxious, to circle the wagons and try to silence those with whom we disagree. I put to you the frank proposition that the creation and maintenance of open societies around the world should be our common goal; and that we should not be deterred from this goal by the intimidatory rhetoric of its enemies, whether they be self-styled conservatives or so-called radicals. Just stating this is a little provocative. Going on to argue it seriously, as I shall, is not very politically correct.

A universal “open society” should, I suggest, be our common goal. By an “open society”, I mean one in which there is the freedom to form associations of the kind you represent; to meet and discuss ideas and concerns; to form, express and freely modify opinions on matters of moment; and to participate in debates over public policy. In the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I would like to declare that this kind of freedom is an inalienable human right, the suppression of which by political or religious authorities cannot be condoned.

Such a claim prompts the question: How can I call something an inalienable human right when a great many human societies have never recognised it as such and some appear to have flourished without allowing it?

Well, of course, by inalienable right, I can hardly mean that all human societies have observed it, or that only those societies to have done so have flourished. Plainly, such a claim would be false. Do I mean that where anyone feels inclined to dissent, then their voice must be heeded? No, that would not work. There are many occasions on which a course of action urgently needs to be co-ordinated and intractable dissent becomes a hindrance to coherent action. There are also occasions on which some people will hold strong opinions from which they will not budge, but which cannot be accommodated by society at large and which it becomes pointless continuing to argue with them about. Even the most tolerant societies suspend or end debate at certain points in order for action to take place, or because there is no apparent purpose to be served by persisting in argument about some matters.

What, then, do I mean by inalienable right? Just this: that the settled command structures, laws, religious dogmas and scientific theories of the society in question remain, in principle, open to revision and that under them, subject to certain orderly practices being followed, dissent will not be persecuted simply because it is dissent. We can agree to disagree; we can postpone debate about some matters and get on with common business; we can abide by rules which enable us to co-exist and even prosper despite significant differences in belief and values. But even following these principles is nearly impossible for arbitrary, despotic, theocratic or totalitarian regimes—and that, of course, is precisely the point I wish to make. Such principles can be followed by any regime that abides by a reasonable code of law, even if it is a monarchy, oligarchy or one-party state. They cannot coherently be followed by a regime which arrogates to itself the arbitrary right to determine truth and suppresses dissent.

I make so bold as to claim that an open society, understood as I have just defined it, should be our universal goal, because there is no justification for arbitrariness and the lawless suppression of dissent in human society. There’s no need to think in terms of visionary radicalism here. Consider the well-known case of Sir Thomas More, a profoundly conservative and Catholic subject of Henry VIII, who refused to bow to the arbitrary will of the monarch and doggedly sought shelter within the law. He went to the scaffold for his dissent from the arbitrary will of the monarch, and Robert Bolt’s famous play and screenplay A Man for All Seasons celebrated him for precisely this. We applaud the principled stance of dissidents such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela under apartheid, Martin Luther King Jr before civil rights reform or Ayaan Hirsi Ali in defiance of violent Islamist threats. We applaud them not only because they dissent, but because they engage in principled dissent against arbitrary and abusive use of power.

Natan Sharansky was a prisoner of conscience under the old Soviet regime and was finally freed from the Gulag under pressure from the Reagan administration in February 1986—in part because Mikhail Gorbachev was in power by then and trying to reform the Soviet Union. Sharansky emigrated from the Soviet Union and went to Israel, where he has been an active political figure and writer ever since. In 2004, his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror was published in New York. The book was dedicated to the great Soviet human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, whom Sharansky described as “A man who proved that, with moral clarity and courage, we can change the world.” Sharansky’s key insight, derived from many dialogues in Soviet prisons and much reflection, sums up neatly my basic point:

Although an enormous diversity of opinion was behind bars in the Gulag, dissidents shared one belief in common: We all wanted to live in a free society. And despite our somewhat contradictory visions of the future, the dissident experience enabled us all to agree on what freedom meant: A society is free if people have a right to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm.

I placed this quote from Sharansky at the head of Chapter 11 of my book Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China, published in 2005. In that chapter I recounted the story of the courageous dissent by Wei Jingsheng against the arbitrary rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Arrested and put on trial for allegedly disturbing public order by calling for democracy, Wei retorted that the charge was “demonstrably false, since I have done nothing conspiratorial and nothing violent, but have simply argued publicly and peaceably for the democratic reform of the political system. I have criticised political leaders, but this is the sovereign right of citizens with which no individual or government organisation has a right to interfere.” Note his wording. Wei was calling for an open society in China.

My argument, then, is that Wei was correct and the Chinese Communist Party wrong on the basis of first principles. The nature of Wei’s defence is crucial and when I state that we should all work for an open society around the world it is this kind of approach that I have in mind. On January 27, a news story appeared in the Australian. It was headed “China’s leaders to decide Hu’s fate”. Stern Hu is still in a Chinese prison, along with three Chinese colleagues who worked for Rio Tinto. The news report was that “Chinese authorities have moved to silence lawyers acting for the men.” Will the four men face trial and if so on what charges and in what form? A “shadowy Communist Party committee will have the final say”, the report stated. Indeed, the decision might be taken by Hu Jintao and his Politburo. Note well: the case will not be decided in a court of law, and lawyers for the defence are under pressure not to talk about it. It will be decided on political grounds by the Communist Party. Lawyers for the defendants had been vocal in their criticism of the Chinese legal system. They are now being pressured to desist from all comment. This is a grim symptom of the closed nature of the society dominated by the Communist Party.

Let me broaden the debate by introducing three case histories. They throw into sharp relief the issues that we might also choose to discuss in many other cases. The three I have chosen are: the classical roots of the open society and the closing down of that open society in late antiquity; Charter 08 and the call for an open society in China in our time; and the great anxiety besetting the world right now with regard to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

When Karl Popper wrote his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, in the early 1940s, the original model for the open society that he had in mind was Athens in the fifth century BC, and the original enemies of that open society that he had in mind were not only the Persian Great King or the Spartan oligarchs, but Plato, with his theory of the closed society ruled by the Guardian Council. The idea of the open society was articulated by Pericles, in his great funeral oration of 431 BC, as recounted by Thucydides in his classic book The Peloponnesian War. Pericles eulogised the open society of Athens in the following words:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to the reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition … We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less to system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger … Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, and we are able to judge proposals even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all …

It was this general approach to public life and citizenship which, spreading through much of the Greek world in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, gave rise to a culture unprecedented in its creativity, liberty and intellectual progress. In all these respects, it is the original model for what we today think of as a liberal democratic order.

But that Greek order gave way, in classical antiquity, to a monarchical order—first under Alexander the Great and his successors and then under the Roman empire. As classical antiquity itself decayed and finally collapsed, the tolerant and scientific spirit that had animated the Grecian world and survived in some measure under the Pax Romana gave way to barbarism and religion. Tolerance ended, science ended, the open society ended and these things had to be won back again at great cost in the modern world.

Lucio Russo, in his marvellous book The Forgotten Revolution (2003), shows how scientific methods were invented in the Hellenistic world, in the third century BC, and then lost again. Science was set back for well over a thousand years and much that had been discovered had to be rediscovered, starting in the Renaissance. Scientific methods and discoveries were lost, first of all, because the Romans (and most Greeks, let it be said) had no interest in or aptitude for scientific theory and critical rationality. Scientific attitudes towards reality were completely confounded, however, by Christianity. The great St Augustine, in Book X of his Confessions, dismissed natural science as mere vulgar curiosity unworthy of a person’s attention, when they should be immersed in contemplation of mysteries like that of the Trinity and the salvation of their immortal souls.

In his new book AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, Charles Freeman argues that Christianity, once it had become the state religion in the Greek and in the Latin world in the fourth century, abolished religious freedom and proscribed heresies of numerous kinds. The writings even of so brilliant a scriptural exegete as Origen were banned and burned as heresy in the fifth century, because they did not conform to the Nicene Creed. Plato’s Academy was shut down by the Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century, because it was deemed “pagan”, even though many a Church Father had relied on Plato’s writings to develop plausibly logical arguments for Christian theology.

The works of countless writers, both pagan and Christian, were destroyed in those centuries or allowed to moulder, because deemed odious, heretical or irrelevant. Michael Servetus was burned alive in the sixteenth century, condemned by Catholics and Protest- ants alike, for his radical attempts to dig out the truth about the Gospels. Giordano Bruno was burned alive as a heretic in 1600, because he argued that there were other worlds and because he advanced other speculations which both the Catholic authorities and orthodox Protestants regarded as heretical. Only after the disastrous wars of religion ended in the mid-seventeenth century were the ideas of religious toleration and the separation of church and state revived. Yet the papacy continued to denounce such ideas right into the nineteenth century, most notably in Pope Pius IX’s notorious Syllabus of Errors.

This is the ancient history of the freedoms which we all, today, take for granted. Those freedoms do not occur naturally. They flourish, in fact, only under exceptional circumstances and need constantly to be grasped and defended. They continue to face enemies and obstacles in our time and all too often those who should stand up for them fail to do so.

Let me cite two prominent examples of this, since they are likely to be far more familiar to you than the history of classical antiquity or Christianity: the suppression of Charter 08 in China and the global debate about climate change. In the first of these cases, it is too often asserted, by those who should know better, that democratisation does not suit the Chinese or that it is a Western idea that should not be imposed on China. In the second case, there has been a growing tendency to denounce those who raise questions about anthropogenic global warming as “denialists” or “climate deniers”. George Monbiot, Clive Hamilton and others have compared them with Holocaust deniers. This rhetoric, I believe, cuts to the heart of both liberal politics and scientific method.

Let’s start with the case of China. In late 2008, 2000 Chinese intellectuals and government officials signed a document which they called Charter 08. It was modelled on Charter 77, which 200 Czechoslovak intellectuals and public figures signed in 1977. The Czechoslovak signatories called themselves:

A loose, informal, and open association of people … united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.

The signatories of Charter 08 similarly describe themselves as a loose, informal association of citizens whose membership is open-ended and whose purpose is to promote democracy and human rights in China. They state, in their preamble to the Charter:

The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles [over the past hundred] years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

The authors summarise the many abuses under Communist Party rule in China and the continuing abuse of power by the Party. They observe:

The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move towards political change.

They call for the abolition of the communist monopoly of political power and for the creation of a democratic and constitutional China, which would guarantee the personal freedoms of all citizens. There must be an end, they declare, to illegal arrest and detention of people by the communist authorities—people like human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was snatched from his home by the Party’s security forces just over a year ago and has not been heard from since. His wife, Geng He, and their two children have fled China and have been granted asylum in the United States. The system of “re-education through labour”—the Chinese Gulag—must be abolished, Charter 08 demands.

Note, especially, the ninth of the Charter’s nineteen demands:

The right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed. The current system for registering non-government groups, which requires a group to be “approved”, should be replaced by a system in which a group simply registers itself. The formation of political parties should be governed by the constitution and the laws, which means that we must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolise power and must guarantee principles of free and fair competition among political parties.

This implicates all of you! You have these freedoms and inherited them. I am free to come here and address you as I am doing without the permission of the government or the church or any other authoritarian body, because I share these freedoms with you. Moreover, the Chinese government has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its constitution guarantees freedoms of association, speech, assembly and religion. Try to exercise those rights, however, and the Party will harass you, arrest you, have goons beat you up or put you through a kangaroo court on charges of disturbing public order.

The Charter 08 signatories concluded their visionary document with the following words:

We dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08. We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilisation.

Writer and political activist Liu Xiaobo was one of the leading figures behind Charter 08. He is now in prison for no other reason than that he helped to put this document together. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “incitement to subvert state power”. What that means, I put to you, is that there is no justification for his imprisonment, any more than there was for that of Wei Jingsheng thirty years ago; any more than there was for the seizure of Gao Zhisheng last year. Similarly, there can be no justification for saying that this is just the Chinese way of doing things. Liu and his co-signatories are every bit as Chinese as the Communist Party. In any case, the principles at stake transcend cultures. They are universal and the Communist Party must be held accountable with reference to them.

Having already been tactless enough to criticise both the medieval Christian churches and the Chinese Communist Party in the name of freedom of association and expression, let me now roll the dice even more boldly by defending as a matter of principle the idea of critical cross-examination of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Note that I do not say I will defend “denialism”, for mere denial of something is an empty gesture and, in any case, the term implies that what is being denied is the incontrovertible truth or sacred orthodoxy. In the nature of the case, that is not conceded. No, what I defend is the indefeasible right to challenge claims made in the name of science or public policy and hold them up to the most rigorous standards of evidence and critical reason. Because the claims about global warming are so alarming and the stakes so high, it is all the more important that such standards and such freedoms be maintained. There is no scope here for ideological or authoritarian practices. We must think with relentless and unfettered clarity.

In order to illustrate what I mean by this, let me relate the story of the debates between the “old guard” of twentieth-century physics and the proponents of the theory of quantum mechanics, at the Solvay Conferences in Brussels, in 1927 and 1930. The story is related in detail by Walter Isaacson in Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007). At the first of these conferences, Albert Einstein, along with Hendrik Lorentz and Max Planck, the three grand masters of early twentieth-century physics, were confronted by Niels Bohr and his young protégés, the youngest of whom, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac, were only twenty-five years old. Einstein, in particular, was staunchly resistant to the claim that, at the sub-atomic level, there was an irreducible unpredictability in the physical world. He had made his reputation, twenty years before, as an iconoclast; but now he was a defender of an orthodoxy: the idea, as he famously put it, that “God does not play dice.”

At the conference, as Isaacson relates, “Einstein kept lobbing up clever thought experiments, both in sessions and in the informal discussions, designed to prove that quantum mechanics did not give a complete description of reality.” He made ingenious and repeated efforts to show that the position and momentum of sub-atomic particles could in theory be known with precision. The young quantum theorists would spend hours wrestling with the challenges Einstein posed for them, but would again and again prove that these did not demonstrate predictability. Einstein would concede defeat when a thought experiment was shown to come up short; but would come back the next morning with a fresh and formidable challenge for the quantum theorists. This went on for days. Although Bohr and others occasionally became exasperated with Einstein, Heisenberg later remarked that the relentless defences put up by Einstein forced the quantum theorists to think harder than they might otherwise have done and, by refuting his ideas, actually to increase their confidence that they had got things basically right. Einstein renewed the challenge in 1930 and again was bested by Bohr. Yet he persisted in his scepticism about uncertainty even in the wake of these brilliant exchanges. And he was not denounced, even if perhaps he was left behind. He was honoured and given a place at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.

What I want to suggest is that we should be conducting the climate debate in the manner that the physicists conducted the quantum mechanics debate at Solvay eighty years ago. If, as many people plainly believe, we are going through an unequivocal and increasingly dangerous global warming that is anthropogenic and driven primarily, though not exclusively, by carbon dioxide emissions linked to the use of fossil fuels; and if this belief seems to entail the public policy judgment that we must drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions by eliminating the use of fossil fuels, then we need the most rigorous challenges to these conclusions, to test our confidence in their accuracy. This is something fundamental to scientific method, to the practice of liberal politics and to sound public policy. And the hypothesis that there is anthropogenic global warming is testable, make no mistake. What eludes all too many participants in the global debate, however, is that everyone who has intellectual integrity in the matter should be actively seeking diagnostic evidence—evidence that would refute the hypothesis, not simply evidence consistent with it.

Consider that, if the hypothesis is correct, we ought to see (1) clear evidence that global temperatures are actually rising; (2) unambiguous evidence that this putative rise in temperatures has gone hand in glove with increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; and (3) clear evidence that hypotheses other than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions as a climate forcer have been refuted. With regard to (1), diagnostic evidence would consist of indications that, actually, temperatures were not increasing after all, even if they had been for a while. With regard to (2), diagnostic evidence would consist of a clear increase in carbon dioxide emissions, such as we have seen over the past decade, without an increase in global temperatures, or clear evidence of rising temperatures in the past which could not be attributed to carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Minoan, Roman or Medieval warm periods or the end of the Little Ice Age. Even better might be instances of cooling temperatures in the geological past accompanied by carbon dioxide levels at least as high as those we currently have or are approaching. With regard to (3), diagnostic evidence would consist of a demonstration that whatever temperature increases we are seeing cannot be attributed to the usual patterns of solar activity or other influences which are known to shape the planet’s climate. Let me repeat, sound science would consist in seeking such diagnostic evidence, not attacking those who do so as “deniers” and refusing to talk to them.

It is precisely such considerations that make the famous leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia rather significant. I urge you to look at the systematic analysis of these e-mails—over a decade’s worth of communication between those chiefly responsible for developing the carbon dioxide global warming case for the IPCC. Those who are committed to the global warming hypothesis are inclined to dismiss the significance of the e-mails. So it goes in high-stakes debates. Having read many of the e-mails, I have to say I find them disturbing. I am almost as disturbed by the inclination of others to wave them away and even object to the leaking of them in the first place.

Let me give you just a couple of samples of what these e-mails disclosed. The Climate Research Unit’s director, Phil Jones, writing on July 5, 2005, used the following words: “The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998. OK, it has, but it is only seven years of data and it isn’t statistically significant.” Or consider the words of Kevin Trenberth, the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a key author of the IPCC’s 2001 and 2007 climate change assessments. He wrote, on October 12, 2009, “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”. What is the lack of warming to which he is referring? Quite simply that, since the spike in global temperatures in 1998, there has been no increase in temperatures despite relentless increases in carbon dioxide emissions; indeed, there has been a slight cooling.

Isn’t there something more than a little strange about the tone of these statements? One might have thought that dispassionate scientific analysts would have seen an apparent cooling trend since 1998 as heartening and a reason to revisit fundamental assumptions about anthropogenic global warming. Instead, there is a concern that such apparent trends should be suppressed as embarrassing.

But it doesn’t stop with the CRU. You will all have seen the report a few weeks ago about the IPCC and the Himalayan glaciers. What struck me about the report was that Georg Kaser, the glaciologist who had pointed out the IPCC’s remarkable error in this matter, seems to have felt obliged to add that, of course, he would not want his observations to be exploited by sceptics to engage in “IPCC-bashing”, because the basic case made by the IPCC was “incontrovertible”. Why would he say such a thing? As it happens, Kaser’s discovery that the IPCC had slipped on the Himalayan glaciers was only one of a substantial number of cases in which its use of evidence has been well below the standards one would expect and should demand of a body purporting to represent the consensus of the scientific community around the world and advising governments on a matter of the greatest importance.

The first case in which the IPCC was found to have been flagrantly wrong was that of the so-called Hockey Stick, a climate model put together by Michael Mann and others at the University of Massachusetts, which purported to show that historical temperatures had been comparatively stable until the twentieth century and then had spiked upward, strongly suggesting that something was seriously out of hand and that it was causally linked with the twentieth-century explosion of human population and industrialisation. This Hockey Stick graph became iconic of global warming and was given prominent display in the IPCC reports for years. The problem is, it was based on fundamentally flawed statistical methods, as was pointed out by statisticians Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. When the statistical errors were corrected, the Hockey Stick melted away. In fact, the Medieval Warm Period was significantly warmer than the end of the twentieth century. Edward Wegman, a pre-eminent American statistician, confirmed that Mann and the palaeoclimate scientists who had authored the Hockey Stick graph had demonstrated a serious ignorance of statistical methods and that there was no basis for their finding that the twentieth century had seen a sharp and unprecedented increase in global temperatures.

Now, you might think that this is just as isolated an incident as that of the Himalayan glaciers. Everyone knows that global warming is both happening and being driven by carbon dioxide emissions, don’t they? Well, perhaps these things are true; but the question is, how do we know and with what level of confidence? Do you believe it because the IPCC says so? If so, do you know how the IPCC actually works? Perhaps you believe the world is warming due to carbon dioxide emissions because Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama have said that the science is settled and the debate is over? But do you usually base your scientific beliefs on the declarations of politicians? Perhaps you accept the hypothesis because some salient piece of “evidence” makes it seem obvious—for example, the melting of summer ice in the Arctic, or the increase in hurricane incidence and intensity in recent years, or the revival of malaria due to increasing temperatures? Or is it more basic than that: carbon dioxide is, clearly, a greenhouse gas, as Svante Arrhenius demonstrated about a century ago; carbon dioxide emissions have clearly been increasing rapidly in the twentieth century (as Charles David Keeling showed) and especially over the past generation; and, as Al Gore’s movie showed, there is a neat fit between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and global temperatures at every point going back 650,000 years. There is such a neat fit, isn’t there? You know that, don’t you? Or do you simply trust that Al Gore got it right, because he is a reputable man and his heart is in the right place?

How would it affect your judgment if it turned out that what has been happening in the Arctic has happened before, for example in the 1940s, without any help from carbon dioxide emissions? That is the judgment of Syunichi Akasofu, founding director of the International Arctic Research Center in Alaska. Or if there had not, in fact, been any increase in either the incidence or intensity of hurricanes in the late twentieth century, as Christopher Landsea, a world specialist on the subject, pointed out to the IPCC in 2005? Landsea was so dismayed by the IPCC’s unsupported claims on this subject in 2004 (made by Kevin Trenberth, at a press conference, but backed up by IPCC HQ), that he resigned from the IPCC and wrote: “I personally cannot in good faith continue to contribute to a process that I view as both being motivated by preconceived agendas and being scientifically unsound.” How would you respond if you learned that the IPCC’s claims about malaria reviving due to global warming were flatly contradicted by specialists on the subject? In 2007, Paul Reiter, one of the world’s leading specialists on malaria, stated:

I know of no major scientist with any long record in this field who agrees with the pronouncements of the alarmists at the IPCC. On the contrary, all of us who work in the field are repeatedly stunned by the IPCC pronouncements.

In short, Georg Kaser’s deference notwithstanding, there seem to be quite a few reasons for questioning the competence and even the integrity of the IPCC. But it shouldn’t come down to this. There is nothing sacrosanct about bodies like the IPCC. At best, they should be providing forums in which testable hypotheses can be subjected to professional scrutiny and the grounds of key findings communicated as transparently as possible to the world. The hypotheses themselves, not their source, are what matters. What matters about hypotheses is that they are testable; that they are compared with alternative hypotheses and that they are provisional. There is simply no room for ex cathedra pronouncements from on high, with dissent being objected to and data withheld from scrutiny lest the findings based on it be questioned.

If it is, indeed, the case that the use of fossil fuels is threatening human civilisation with a runaway and devastating greenhouse effect, as James Lovelock and James Hansen and many others declare, then, as the expression has it, “Houston, we have a problem.” But accepting that we have such a problem and agreeing on what should be done about it are not and cannot be matters of unquestioned consensus that is not open to scrutiny or revision.

After all, even if the basic scenario were to be demonstrated ever so clearly, there would plainly still have to be debate about how serious it was and what to do about it. You have only to look at the withering critiques of the Stern report’s recommendations and methodology by climate economists such as William Nordhaus and Richard Tol to see that the public policy debate cannot be regarded as settled on the basis of Stern’s work. Or consider that there are those who say we must keep temperature increases below four degrees, while a body of opinion has now emerged saying it needs to be two degrees; but James Hansen declares in his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren, that it needs to be one degree. Can such a debate be decided by an authority and any dissent held to be “denialism”? What sense would that make?

Neither science nor political freedom can flourish where one feels obliged to apologise for or suppress unorthodox opinions or data which might be embarrassing to some authority or interest group. It just doesn’t work that way. If the IPCC or the so-called “scientific community” is treated in the manner of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, you can kiss science goodbye. This was the problem Servetus, Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo had. What is required is not suppression of dissent, or nervous piety, but bold testing of hypotheses and the advancement of scientific literacy. Remember Solvay. Clearly, this cuts both ways: those who are sceptical about anthropogenic global warming have a responsibility to specify what kind of evidence would sway them and to show how their own hypotheses could be tested and possibly refuted.

In civil society, debates about public policy are likely to benefit from discussion, and there can be no prohibition on people assembling to discuss things; but participants in such discussions must seek to work according to the rules of argument and not resort to ad hominem abuse or any of the other old devices of sophistry and demagoguery that are used to derail constructive debate. Even established public policy must remain open to critical review and correction.

In his last years, Karl Popper was very interested in the Greek origins of critical rationality and speculative natural science. After he died, a set of his unpublished papers was put together under the title The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Pre-Socratic Enlightenment. Consistent with his commitment to the open society, Popper wrote:

Every rational discussion, that is, every discussion devoted to the search for truth, is based on principles, which in actual fact are ethical principles. I should like to state three of them:

1. The principle of fallibility. Perhaps I am wrong and perhaps you are right; but, of course, we may both be wrong.

2. The principle of rational discussion. We need to test critically and, of course, as impersonally as possible the various (criticisable) theories that are in dispute.

3. The principle of approximation to truth. We can nearly always come closer to the truth with the help of such critical discussions; and we can nearly always improve our understanding, even in cases where we do not reach agreement.”

The thought I want to finish with is this: the work of free associations, as leaders of initiative and enquiry and the articulation of concerns and the generation of ideas, is the lifeblood of a free and open society. I salute you and believe passionately in the importance of the work you are doing.

Paul Monk’s recent books Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty and The West in a Nutshell are published by and available from the Canberra publisher Barrallier Books (www.barrallierbooks.com).