David Runciman is professor of politics at Cambridge University and the great nephew of Sir Steven Runciman, author of a magnificent three-volume History of the Crusades, to which T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is little more than an appendix on the perils of camel riding and a description of the intimate habits of those fascinating beasts. (Did you know that Lawrence’s companion-at-arms Sheikh Faisal had a servant in his entourage serving hot tea and coffee from camel-back while on manoeuvres? Can Starbucks offer as much?) Stendhal claimed that the Thousand and One Nights occupied half of his mind (esprit) and one may reasonably enquire: “Why only half?”
This article may seem to stray from the path of climate scepticism, but as an adage from the above mentioned text in the version by the great Dr Mardrus has it: “The pilgrimage is not over until the cameleer has buggered his camel.”
Where was I?
I’ve mentioned Professor David Runciman in a couple of articles, once out of pique, here because his Guardian article, “How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous”got a higher rating on a google search for “climate scepticism” than this blog, and once here because he is one of three Cambridge professors running a five year research project on Conspiracy and Democracy, financed by the Leverhulme Trust, because I couldn’t see any reason for including climate scepticism in his ten examples of conspiracy theory except that climate scepticism seems to be a bit of a giant bee in Professor Runciman’s bonnet.
My criticisms of the initial research results in the above article were measured and polite. This was because I wrote to the author of one of the three Guardian articles on the Conspiracy and Democracy project, Dr Hugo Drochon, and he kindly provided me with the raw data for the research. Dr Drochon has published an analysis of an earlier part of the research project as a chapter in “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them” and I’ll be coming back to this interesting book soon.
One of the ten “conspiracy theories” considered was that: “The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people.” The other specific conspiracy theories explored in the research concerned vaccines, AIDS, aliens and the Holocaust. There were also two questions about immigration, and three which vaguely accused “the powers that be” of conspiracist aims.
I found it odd that the question of climate change scepticism should figure so prominently. Apart from immigration, it was the only subject of contemporary interest included, since the origin of AIDS or a plot to impose vaccination are hardly burning topics of discussion. There were none of what might be considered “typical” conspiracy theories – the historic events where the official explanation fails to convince, like the Kennedy assassination, the Triple Towers attack, or the Skripal case. Spending five years researching conspiracy theories without mentioning the only conspiracy theories anyone’s heard of seems a bit – odd. Can a dead soap millionaire demand his money back?
As I suggested in my previous article, I have huge reservations about the validity of the whole Conspiracy and Democracy project. In fact I think the five year’s work of CRASSH, as revealed on their website, is a steaming pile of extremely poor research, produced for base political purposes by cynical manipulators of public opinion using their academic reputation to attempt to impose an Orwellian censorship on political discourse, which in the process diminishes the reputation and authority of one of the world’s great universities to somewhere between that of the University of East Anglia and the Jimmy Saville Fan Club. But I’ll reserve my bile for a later article and keep the present one resolutely polite.
I mentioned in a comment to my article that all three professors who are named as PIs, or “Principal Investigators” on the research project have expressed negative opinions about climate sceptics, and that Professors Naughton and Evans have both used the term “Denier” (odd, in the case of Sir Richard Evans, who is a historian of the Third Reich, and might therefore be expected to have an ear for the resonance of the word.)
But this article is about Professor Runciman, so let’s keep it strictly ad hominem.
The thesis of his long Guardian article “How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous” is that climate scepticism (which the Guardian’s sub changes to “denial” in the URL) tends to degenerate into cynicism.
…climate scepticism is being driven out by climate cynicism. A sceptic questions the evidence for a given claim and asks whether it is believable. A cynic questions the motives of the people who deploy the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable or not. Any attempt to defend the facts gets presented as evidence that the facts simply suit the interests of the people peddling them.
Runciman is standing up for healthy, evidence-based scepticism against the cynic’s attribution of base motives to his adversary. So where does Runciman stand on “the evidence”?
The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels.
[The link here, presumably inserted by a Guardian sub, is to an article by John Abrahams about ocean heat, apparently because it’s the latest article at the Guardian written by the two stooges known as “the 97%.” All the other links I looked at were also to articles on the Guardian website, with no particular relevance to what Professor Runciman was saying.
Imagine if you can a Cambridge Professor (call him, for the sake of argument, Bertrand Russell, or Stephen Hawking, or Isaac Newton) who allowed an article of his to be published, with random footnotes added by some anonymous sub-editor.
Imagine now a Chinese Professor of Politics, coming across this article by a Cambridge Professor of Politics, intrigued by the claim that “more than 95% of climate researchers agree…”who decides to follow it up, and finds that the source is an engineering lecturer in an obscure American religious college, whose very first article at the Guardian contained the immortal words: “..according to the most authoritative polar bears…”
Does Professor Runciman care that the Guardian has turned his carefully reasoned article into a Monty Python sketch? Apparently not.]
Professor Runciman’s first statement on “the science” is demonstrably false. No-one has ever tried to quantify the number of climate researchers who make that claim. Does he know that? In which case he is lying. Or doesn’t he? In which case he really doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Most of the rest of the article is about tactics: how to “push back against the purveyors of post-truth.”But Runciman wants to allow a place for scepticism:
A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail..
But that doubt needs to be severely limited:
Climate change is the defining political issue of our times… the contest over the truth about climate change is doing serious damage to our democracy.
But isn’t contest overthe truth about different assertions what democracy is all about?
The idea that manmade carbon emissions are contributing to significant changes in the climate first came to public notice in the 1960s and 1970s… In 1975 Newsweek made a splash with the claim that the science of climate change was pointing to the imminent threat of global cooling… Many of the recent Republican presidential candidates cited over-the-top scare stories about global cooling from their childhood as a reason to discount scare stories about global warming today. What politicised the idea of climate change was its adoption as a cause by Democratic politicians in the 1980s, above all by Al Gore. By the start of that decade, evidence of global cooling had faded and a scientific consensus was starting to form around the idea that the climate was warming up.
Well, yes, exactly. First there was global cooling, then global warming. And this is a reason to denigrate scepticism?
Runciman’s essay is largely an account of the politics of climate change, but he is obliged to digress into the science from time to time, because without the science, there is no politics. After a brief discussion of Thatcher and Gore comes this key paragraph:
Once science gets dragged into the territory of politics, its opponents can accuse it of being a distortion of science. Scientists are meant to be politically neutral, at least as far as their science is concerned. Yet it is almost impossible to remain neutral when you are under political assault.
Let’s rephrase that paragraph so that – say – a casual reader of Feynman wouldn’t be ashamed of it:
Once science gets dragged into the territory of politics, it is no longer science, but a distortion of science. Scientists must be politically neutral, as far as their science is concerned. If they find it impossible to remain neutral when under political assault, then they are no longer scientists.
Then Runciman comes back, if not to the subject of science, to the subject of facts about “the science:”
In these politically charged circumstances, there is no safe space for the facts to retreat to. [What? Safe space for facts? Did a professor really write that? Or was it inserted via a hack by some evil alt-right cynical-sceptic having a laugh?] That was made clear by the so-called “climategate” scandal of 2009, when a series of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia was held up as evidence that the scientific evidence was being distorted to fit a political agenda. The emails showed no such thing. What they did reveal is that in an environment of highly politicised scepticism, climate scientists were forced to think about guarding the evidence against opponents looking for any excuse to discredit it.
But, but.. Professor Runciman, you have clearly read the emails. You therefore know that the climate scientists didn’t just “think about guarding the evidence against opponents looking for any excuse to discredit it.” They hid it, and expressed their willingness to destroy it, rather than reveal it. You know that.
In private correspondence, the UEA scientists talked about presentational “tricks” for describing the data and the need to favour certain outlets for publication over others. They looked out for their friends and they were wary of their enemies: that’s politics. There was nothing wrong with the science, as was confirmed by an extensive series of inquiries into the affair. But the emails betrayed the scientists’ awareness that the idea of a consensus on manmade climate change was under concerted attack. So they went out of their way to shore up the consensus. Which, when revealed, confirmed to their opponents that the consensus was a sham.
I heartily agree with Runciman’s last paragraph, except for the sentence I’ve put in italics, which is false, as the rest of his paragraph amply demonstrates.
presentational “tricks” for describing the data… the need to favour certain outlets for publication… They looked out for their friends and they were wary of their enemies: that’s politics… the scientists’ awareness that the idea of a consensus on manmade climate change was under concerted attack … they went out of their way to shore up the consensus…”
In the middle of this series of taps on the knuckles of climate scientists, Professor Runciman says: “There was nothing wrong with the science.”
That Runciman can insert into this catalogue of intellectual horrors the declaration that: “There was nothing wrong with the science, as was confirmed by an extensive series of inquiries into the affair” demonstrates that he is familiar with the reports by Muir Russell and Lord Oxburgh and that therefore he knows that neither report dealt with “the science.”Therefore he is lying.
Professor Runciman is clearly familiar with the content of the emails, so he will know that Professor Jones expressed his satisfaction at the death of an obscure retired weatherman in Tasmania, and that Professor Santer expressed the desire to exercise a bit of peer-reviewed GBH on a prominent critic of the hockey stick. He wasn’t obliged to mention these sordid facts in his article, but they are relevant. And a historian or a professor of political science who leaves out relevant facts is no longer a historian or a political scientist, just as a scientist who tries to suppress contrary evidence is no longer a scientist.The Climategate emails showed scientists lying and suppressing opposing opinions and destroying data and requesting others to destroy data. Professor Runciman refers to these facts without characterising them; for a historian or a social scientist, that’s tantamount to lying about it.
So Professor Runciman can take the rest of his lying article with his conspiratorial hysterics about oil money and tobacco money and his insane unsupported theory that the“current migrant crisis is partly being driven by changes in the climate affecting food and water supplies in Africa and the Middle East”and take a fucking running jump. And he can take the reputation of Cambridge University with him.
Well, I’m afraid I’ve blown it there, in terms of establishing a dialogue. And I had so much more to say, about Professor Runciman’s YouTube talks, [in which he accuses Professor Oreskes among others of being a conspiracy theorist, which, given that she is one of the prime movers of the scientific consensus, tends to cut off the goolies of his “more than 95%”argument] and about how I‘m in favour of academic freedom, and will defend the right of Cambridge professors financed by dead soap millionaires to spout lying hysterical crap about the end of the world until my dying day, or at least until the establishment of a Climate Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will establish the precise responsibility of each intellectual wanker in the great circle jerk of uncertainty (which is not your friend, but which is something to hold on to when you’re installing a regime of intellectual terror designed to tighten your uncertain grip on reality and what you like to think of as your influence on events in the real world) in imposing this particular insanity upon us.
Professor Runciman is on a crusade, financed by dead soap millionaires, supported by a once great university and naturally by the entire right(left)-thinking media. He wants to build a climate-proof Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Which means first destroying us infidels. Because it is we sceptics who hold the Holy City of scientific method and rational discourse. If he wants to challenge us, he’s welcome. So far, he hasn’t. He hasn’t tried. Nobody has.