That ABC would stack its Q&A panel and audience comes as no surprise, as that is standard operating procedure at the national broadcaster. But even by those low standards, alleged climate guru Brian Cox plumbed new depths in bias, bad manners and a compere’s partisan indulgence
First, I want to make it clear that, where you’re concerned, I’m not a ‘vexatious invigilator’. My wife and I (each with an earned PhD) have watched most of your TV programs, and have been struck by their intellectual clarity and your unassuming personal style (as well as by your BMI: we’re high-level wellness devotees). With that said, we both have serious misgivings about your recent appearance on Q&A.
No pronouncement that enjoys an audience has zero social consequences, and the more prominent the pronouncer the more significant the consequences are likely to be. Your recent Q&A appearance brings that out well. You were treated like a science guru, both by the audience and by compere Tony Jones, and it’s inevitable that what you said will affect the opinions of hundreds, probably thousands, of people.
You might disagree, but I’d argue that your authority carries a responsibility: a responsibility to ensure that your audience (whether that’s one person or thousands) is not misled by your pronouncements. It’s difficult to evade the conclusion that, on this recent occasion, you didn’t live up to that responsibility.
First, the program itself, including some of its history. In 2007, Tony Jones brought climate change sceptic Martin Durkin onto his program. My wife, Denise, and I, at that stage relatively uninformed and open-minded about the subject, expected Durkin to be given a decent opportunity to put his case. Instead, we watched the attempted ‘credibility destruction’ of a person who had obviously been set up to be ambushed. The attack was carried out most enthusiastically by Jones himself. I was so appalled by Jones’ behaviour that I wrote to the ABC about it (so did others); Denise and I were so disgusted that we’ve never been able to bring ourselves to watch Jones since.
In the recent Q&A (which, as matter of duty, I watched during its second airing, on Tuesday, August 16, 2016), Jones attacked nobody, but the ‘stage-management’ of that episode was undisguisedly tendentious. On the panel there was no acknowledged climate or ‘climate -related’ scientist with known anti-AGW views (e.g. Bob Carter, William Kininmonth, Ian Plimer) – and, had there been, I suspect that you wouldn’t have been there. In fact no panel member at all was a bona fide climate scientist: i.e. a scientist with specialised knowledge in one (or more) of the disciplines that are demonstrably related to global climate behaviour and who frequently applies that knowledge as a professional contributor to that field.
Instead, the panel comprised a ‘science superstar’ (an appellation used by commentators both before and after the show); a federal minister who would (inter alia) be interrogated about cutting spending on climate change; a federal opposition member with no obvious responsibility for any aspect of climate; a ‘mathematician’ (publicity blurb) who holds a bachelor degree built only partly on mathematics per se and who, as far as I know, is a person not connected professionally with any aspect of climate science research per se; and one lay climate sceptic who is – unfairly or not – perceived by many Australians as an extremist (on many topics) and so was expected to shoot himself in the foot on the subject of climate change.
The outcome of the ‘debate’ was predictable: most media presented it as climate change scepticism being ‘debunked’ by a leading scientist with a worldwide reputation.
Whether or not you agree with your admirers about your status, as an experienced science presenter you know as well as I do that a national broadcaster in a self-proclaimed democracy has an ethical duty to present material in a balanced and fair manner; this was never more incumbent on a broadcaster than in the case of climate change. Yet the Q&A program was stacked in a way that should have been expected to prejudice one side of a debate. Why, then, did you agree to take part? If your response is that there is no valid debate (a strange stance for a scientist anyway), then why were you there? To lend your support to interaction that had a better than even chance of being reported as the modern equivalent of bear-baiting: a spectacle to thrill the masses? (If you think I’m exaggerating here, just look at the coverage the show got later, including in your own British papers.)
A possible defence of the makeup of the panel is that the Q&A episode would deal with more than just the subject of climate change. I would argue that to do justice to climate change under such circumstances was therefore next to impossible, and that it should not have been on the agenda. But it was, and you came onto the show armed with graphs; given all the circumstances a balanced treatment of climate change never had a chance.
Another defence you might put is that you tried to be reasonable on the show and you can’t be held responsible for the way it was later misrepresented in the media and that you’re really quite surprised. That defence might excuse a naive artisan scientist who works in a lab or out in the tundra, but you’re anything but. You’re an experienced, media-savvy science presenter, well informed about embedded messages, the importance of context, the impact of the status of the messenger on the message, and much more. (The ‘much more’ includes, or ought to include, the politics of science career protection and of access to scientific journals: each of these connected intimately with the other.) The idea that a world-famous scientist, armed with graphs, would not have a profound influence on public opinion about climate change, is laughable; the idea that a contest between such a person and an already somewhat demonised antagonist would produce anything other than the result that it actually did, is just as risible.
I want to turn, now, to what you actually said (i.e. on climate and climate change) and what you didn’t say.
You presented some graphs (the fact that you had some ready suggests complicity in a stitch-up, but I’ll let you tell me how it was that you came onto the show so well prepared). I’d appreciate copies, in due course, but what I took these graphs to show is that the mean global temperature has risen steadily during the last 100 years and so has the concentration of atmospheric CO₂.
The fact that the mean global temperature has risen during the last 100 years says nothing about what it was doing before then, and says nothing at all about its causes. Even if the 100-year correlation with rising levels of atmospheric CO₂ were perfect (and there isn’t 100% agreement even on the purely statistical question of how good the correlation is), that proves nothing whatever about causation. The fact that correlation says nothing about causation (a fact that guides all empirical inquiry, including science) was drawn to your attention by Malcolm Roberts, your sceptical fellow panel member, the fellow who, according to subsequent media assessments, you ‘schooled in the science of climate change’ and ‘exposed and destroyed’, and who is a ‘climate change denier’ (he isn’t) whose claims you refuted (you didn’t: you disputed them).
These facts – I call them part of the immediately relevant context – you grossly played down (I quote you: ‘The absolute – absolute – consensus is that human action is leading to an increase in average temperatures. Absolute consensus. I know you may try to argue with that but you can’t.’). If you want to argue that to include this ‘relevant context’ would have opened up issues that couldn’t easily be addressed within such confines, doesn’t that apply a fortiori to your decision to display the graphs themselves?
The predictable result of your manoeuvre was well captured in a tweet I noticed during the program: ‘the graph speaks!’. With the utmost respect to this benighted soul: in the context of the program, the graph speaks but it does not fairly inform; moreover a glove puppet speaks too, but who is its manipulator?
As I understand it you’re an astrophysicist and/or particle physicist – and, by my own reckoning, you’re an excellent science presenter. On Q&A the other night you let yourself be manipulated (or deliberately chose the strategy yourself), such that it was your credibility as a ‘scientist’ that gave credibility to your comments on climate. But you aren’t a ‘climate scientist’ (i.e. you don’t study climate and its perturbations as your primary professional job): in the area of climate and climate change you’re a layman – almost certainly a well-informed one but still a layman: like your chief opponent, Malcolm Roberts, and like me in fact. Your moral duty, I believe, was to emphasise, for the benefit of your audience, that you’re NOT a climate scientist: in respect to climate change your most pertinent expertise is that you’re a presenter and explicator of science topics. Along with any other panel member, you had a perfect right to nominate the dimensions of climate and climate change that you believe deserve to be put on the table, but as a non-specialist and a non-expert you had an obligation to confine those dimensions to those about which there can be very little doubt whatever: dimensions or facts that any intelligent non-specialist could, in principle, discover for herself. Here are some of them, the first and second groups surely safe from dispute by any climate scientist:
- Planet Earth is a dynamic planet in a dynamic solar system: thus climate change is, now and for millions of years to come, inevitable and unstoppable. In the absence of climate change, life as it exists on our planet simply wouldn’t.
- Our global climate system is almost incomprehensibly complex: across geological time and into the present affected interactively by the sun; the moon; possibly by some of the larger planets; by tectonic plate movement; volcanic activity; cyclical changes in the earth’s oceans; changes in the quantum and distribution of the earth’s biomass; changes in greenhouse gases that themselves are the result of changes in more underlying factors; by changes in the earth’s tilt and solar orbit; probably by changes in the earth’s magnetic field; and possibly by some other non-anthropogenic factors that at present scientists either don’t know about or whose impact they haven’t yet fully appreciated.
- ‘Consensus’ means ‘majority view’; majority views can be egregiously wrong (witness the work of apostates Marshall and Warren in the case of Helicobacter pylori and stomach ulcers).
- There is no published estimate of the degree of consensus on any aspect of climate or climate change that is so statistically robust that it can’t be contested; in any case, the size of the majority in favour of a scientific conclusion is logically disconnected from its validity: scientific hypotheses and conclusions are refined and proven by empirical data, not crowd appeal.
- There are now countless thousands of studies drawn from at least twenty scientific disciplines that aim to – or purport to – shed light on how the earth’s climate ‘works’. Many of their results and conclusions are, by their authors’ own reckoning, tentative; the results and conclusions of some studies contest the results and conclusions of others. There would be few, if any, aspects of climate that could claim 100% agreement among the relevant researchers except some of the raw data – and even many of these are contested, because different (though prima facie equally defensible) methods have been adopted to collect them.
- In 2016, the feedback loops and tipping points that are assumed to affect global climate systems are, in actual real-world settings, imperfectly understood, and tipping points in particular are largely speculative. This is true regardless of the possibility (even the likelihood) that the current ‘very rapid pulse increase’ in CO₂ is geologically unprecedented or the possibility that it will have irreversible climatic consequences.
- There is demonstrable scientific debate about the presumptive roles (yes, roles) of CO₂ in medium- and long-term climate change in the real world – and there is no conclusion about how CO₂ is related to these dimensions that is supported by incontestable empirical evidence.
- The impact of anthropogenic CO₂ is therefore a scientific question, not a matter on which ‘the science is settled’ or ‘the debate is over’.
You might nit-pick one or other of my proposed ‘agreed facts or dimensions’, but as a non-specialist appearing on a national TV ‘debate’ entered into by non-experts you had no legitimate brief to ignore most of them and substitute (albeit via oblique insertion) what I assume are your personal convictions about climate and climate change, misusing the face-validity of your science credentials to have your views uncritically accepted by a wider audience.
Let us, for one phantasmagorical moment, pretend that all the data are in (this would be a first for any science ever, and would transform it from science to dogma), that ‘the (scientific) debate is over’, that CO₂ has been shown unequivocally to be the main driver of global warming during the past 40 years, and that the existence of countervailing global mechanisms is vanishingly unlikely: given the world-wide concern about ‘climate change’, and given your high profile as a scientist, you have further duties of care I believe. Chief among them is to help people understand what sort of world they’ll inhabit if fossil-sourced substances are taken off the menu.
Nuclear-powered electricity generation could, theoretically, substitute for a very significant proportion of current fossil-fuel-powered generation. Assuming uniformly supportive governments and negligible public opposition (an unlikely scenario), nuclear power could be up and running across the world in 5-10 years. It follows that fossil-fuel-powered generation will be required for at least that long: in reality it’s likely to be much longer.
Assuming anything less than a massive increase in nuclear electricity generation, in the absence of fossil-sourced energy and fossil-sourced raw materials (for many of which there are currently no realistic alternatives) at least the next twenty years would be years with minimal heating and cooling; with compromised urban street lighting; with compromised sewerage and other waste disposal systems; without motorised transport, functional agricultural, mining and industrial machinery, newly manufactured computers and tablets, mobile phones, television sets, refrigerators, bicycles or any other conventional consumer goods, including clothes and shoes; and with inadequate food and/or water for most of the world’s people and their pets and livestock. Modern medicine would collapse; so would most school systems; so, probably, would our financial systems – and possibly even our political systems. In such a world, people like Brian Cox won’t be able to jet to Australia – and will struggle to conduct their professional lives even via video-conferencing – and Al Gore will have to significantly reduce the scale of his energy-dense lifestyle. The world as we’ve come to expect it during the past century simply won’t exist, and many of its human inhabitants will perish: in particular the already impoverished, the very young, the otherwise frail, and the physically handicapped. In a world so beleaguered civil unrest is certain, and food-looting, widespread violence and murder are virtually guaranteed. This is the larger context in which the ‘climate change debate’ (now over … ) should be conducted. It’s a context that implies balancing risks against benefits, and that balance will have to be struck even if the worst of the climate-change scenarios is realised.
The sciences that are contributing to our full understanding of climate and climate change are a long way from achieving their goal; the debate that characterises their work is a sign of a healthy scientific enterprise. The rise of climate-related ‘think-tanks’, ‘idea clearing-houses’ and other lobby groups – or individuals (on both sides of the contest) is predictable, but the main contribution of many of them, ill-informed and/or tendentious as they are, has been to massage prejudices and close people’s minds. Your own contribution, on the recent Q & A, will almost certainly have that effect too: in fact the subsequent media coverage already comprises powerful evidence. Your implicit invitation, that people do their own research, is disingenuous: you know, as well as I do, that most people won’t do their own research, and that many are simply not capable of it. The vast majority of the world’s public look to respected spokespersons such as you to instruct them about what they should think and believe. You have a profound duty of care to instruct them even-handedly and fairly; I believe you failed in that duty on the recent Q & A.
Denise and I will continue to watch your programs, simply because they’ve been so good and you seem so decent. However, your recent appearance and performance on Q & A have severely disillusioned us. Perhaps now is the time for you to consider a series of programs of your own on this, one of the most vexed of current topics. Your flair for making complex subjects intelligible to the lay person without misrepresenting them (sadly, not on display on the recent Q & A) should make the series compelling. But it’s precisely your recent appearance on Q & A that leads us to doubt that you would be able to conduct such a project fairly and with an open mind.
Undoubtedly you have a lot on your plate, so I’m willing to wait until 7 September for your response to this letter, without taking any further action. If I’ve heard nothing by then, I’ll rework the document and distribute it as an open letter, available for scrutiny and comment by anybody.
With best wishes