No true scientists: the Royal Society, climate change and the No True Scotsman fallacy

Climate Change: Evidence & Causes
Picture: Royal Society/National Academy of Sciences

When is an august scientific body not an august scientific body? When it releases a report you don’t like.

This week the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences released a thoroughly calm and clear report on climate change, “Climate change: evidence & causes“. It explains the realities and complexities of climate science, the areas in which scientists are extremely confident of their results and where there is more uncertainty, and what the risks are.

The world is warming, they point out; about 0.8C since 1900. Scientists know that human activities, rather than natural variations, are behind most of this warming through a process called “fingerprinting”; looking at finer details than the average temperature of the planet. For instance, greenhouse gas releases would warm the lower atmosphere first, while increases in the Sun’s output would warm the upper atmosphere at the same time. And, lo and behold, measurements detect warming in the lower atmosphere first, as well as other tell-tale signs of human influence. By contrast the Sun’s activity has, if anything, slightly dropped since the late 1970s, while global temperatures have increased.

It’s a marvellously well-done report, in plain but unpatronising language, explaining how we know what we know, and what we can expect; for instance, carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so even if all emissions stop now we could expect the temperature to keep rising for another 300 years or so; and the prediction of an increase of temperature of between 2.6C and 4.8C should be enough to worry us, since the difference between now and the last Ice Age was only about 4C. And while the climate does change naturally, it has never changed this fast before, as far as scientists can tell.

There are lots of uncertainties, and the report is careful to point out that the fact that things are warming doesn’t automatically point us to a particular political response – this isn’t a Green Party political broadcast:

Citizens and governments can choose among several options (or a mixture of those options) in response to this information: they can change their pattern of energy production and usage in order to limit emissions of greenhouse gases and hence the magnitude of climate changes; they can wait for changes to occur and accept the losses, damage and suffering that arise; they can adapt to actual and expected changes as much as possible; or they can seek as yet unproven ‘geoengineering’ solutions to counteract some of the climate changes that would otherwise occur. Each of these options has risks, attractions and costs, and what is actually done may be a mixture of these different options.

But what it reminds us is: the argument among scientists is not whether or not human activity is warming the world, but how quickly, and how much the oceans are absorbing it, and how much we can expect it to warm in the coming years. “It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes. The evidence is clear.”

I’d be intrigued to know how climate-change denialists, or whatever their preferred term is, respond to this. But I think I know: they will declare the RS and the NAS to be No True Scientists.

More on climate change

Cameron believes climate change is the greatest threat
Calls for Paterson to be sacked are reprehensible
The floods weren’t anyone’s fault, for Heaven’s sake

Most people are probably familiar with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but for those of you who aren’t, here’s how Antony Flew, the philosopher, described it:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

This is a common enough arguing tactic. A Lefty says no Lefty would support Blair’s wars; someone finds a Lefty who did; the first Lefty says the second Lefty isn’t a true Lefty. A Christian says no Christian would believe in gay marriage; someone shows him one who does; the first Christian says the second Christian isn’t a true Christian.

So it is with a certain breed of climate sceptic. No true scientist would fall for the lies of Big Windfarm. So any scientist who says that mankind’s influence on the climate is dangerous is no true scientist.

In fact the Royal Society has been told it before, by, among other people, my former colleague James Delingpole. (Who’s doing very well and seems to be entirely happy over at Breitbart London, by the way, and we wish him all the best, before anyone gets all CHIVERS SLAMS DELINGPOLE AFTER SHOCK BLOG QUIT.) I don’t know if the NAS has received the same treatment.

But it’s not just those two bodies. Thirty-four national academies have released statements since 2001 confirming that they believe human activity is causing dangerous climate change. Dozens of scientific societies representing geophysicists, meteorologists, oceanographers, agronomists, palaeoclimatologists etc  and so on have released similar statements. The world’s scientific bodies, it seems, all agree that climate change is a genuine and pressing threat.

Of course, science doesn’t progress by consensus, a million experts can agree and be wrong, and so on. But there is a belief among sceptics that by definition, if you’re a scientist who believes that dangerous anthropogenic climate change is happening, then you’re not a real scientist, you’re doing it to get government grants, you’re a watermelon communist out to control the people under your jackboot-wellies.

So I’d like to ask the sceptics: what do you say to the National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society, and the American Meteorological Society, and the World Meteorological Organisation, and the Geological Society of London? Do you think they’re all shills or con artists or secret Marxists? Or do you think they’re all incompetent, and that the only competent scientists are the few who happen to agree with you?

Because in my case, if I find that I disagree with the vast majority of experts in a scientific field, I tend to consider the possibility that I’m wrong, and that they’re right. Not that I’m the only true Scotsman in the room.

More by Tom Chivers

Zircon: the history of the Earth in a grain of sand
My newborn son Billy, four billion years old today
Why delaying the NHS data-sharing system will cost lives

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