May 15, 2007

It starts with the motto

Britain's Royal Society stealthily drops its former motto, "on the word of no one" to "respect the facts." Trouble is, say Ben Pile and Stuart Blackman, the facts have morphed into opinions much like the Society's motto.
Science has earned its stripes over the past four centuries. It has proved the best method we have for understanding the material universe and has transformed our lives for the better. We now have chief scientific advisers to the UK government and scientists in the House of Lords. But science has correspondingly become more entwined with the political process, and custodians of the scientific facts need to be especially careful how they wield them.

In his TLS review, [Royal Society President Lord] May exemplifies some of the problems of dealing in a currency of facts. He quotes Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to demonstrate that global warming will devastate species diversity: ‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming.’ That’s not a fact. It’s not even an accurate quote. Stern actually wrote: ‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15–40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming.’ (Our italics.) Stern’s claim was a worst-case scenario based on a single study, not a fact.

Unrepresentative evidence has morphed into scientific fact by a process that owes more to Chinese whispers than scientific rigour. Moreover, a scientist should be scrutinising the facts of the Stern report, not deferring to them. May’s assertion that ‘CO2 is, of course, the principal “greenhouse gas” in the atmosphere’ is just as questionable, given that water vapour has far more influence on the global greenhouse, and other gases such as methane are more potent, measure for measure.

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