The right to be wrong.

Perhaps the best definition of freedom of speech comes from the famous quote attributed to Voltaire in S.G. Tallentyre‘s ‘Friends of Voltaire’, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it‘. While Tallentyre (or to use the author’s real name, Evelyn Hall) put these words in the great Frenchman’s mouth they do, more than any other single sentence, distil the principles of free expression that we all enjoy, knowingly or not, into a manageable soundbite.

In theory this noble approach to the thoughts of others is something we should all aim to copy. In practice it is sometimes much harder. Some years ago while I participated in a debate where I argued that the British National Party should be banned. I spoke vehemently for the motion, all the while knowing quite well that I was trampling all over my own principles, such is the power of emotion over rational thought. These days my disdain for the far right is almost equaled by my dislike of the climate skeptic movement, but I have come to realise that while they may be a pack of braying special interest donkeys they do at least have a right to be heard.

Listening to people at least allows you to ridicule them (image from Priceofoil.org).

Any good science is base around discussion (and argument) between people who don’t agree. However much we try to make data as objective as possible its interpretation will still be subjective, affected by an individual scientist’s previous experience, knowledge and opinions. Knowing this it would be foolish to believe that every scientists should have the same views on climate change. There are always going to be differences, however semantic, within the non-skeptics (i.e. the ‘majority’) and more substantive difference between the majority and the skeptic minority.

A problem arises when the minority, funded up the eyeballs by energy companies and others with an interest in the non-existence of climate change, move from scientific disagreement to promulgating their views as truth to the world as a whole. There is no doubt that blaming sunspots for melting ice caps is a far cozier alternative to the truth. Skepticism sells, combining as it does this preferential alternative with the appeal a good old fashions conspiracy theory. Suddenly unexplained data or events not previous predicted become vast holes in the ‘case’ for global warming and mutterings about cover ups are heard. Take the Met Office’s recent statistics showing that, surprisingly, temperatures have remained stable over the last five years and not risen as predicted. Unexpected data that the Met Office supposedly ‘covered up’ by releaseing in on Christas Eve. They did such a good job covering it up that the figures, along with attached conspiracy hypothesis, were reported in a number of national newspapers.

Frustratingly this attitude actually stifles real debate. We need to work out why our climate modeling didn’t predict this plateau in temperatures. The climate system is so complex that, despite long years of study, we cannot claim to fully understand it. Analysing where we go wrong is essential if our understanding is to improve, yet who now will be brave enough to take on such a toxic piece of work?

The anti-change movement is guilty of exactly the unbending dogma and hypocrisy it accuses mainstream climate science of possessing. I recently witness a university professor of a somewhat skeptical bent promulgating about the lack of temperature increase on the same scale as predicted by the IPCC as being evidence against climate change, while steadfastly ignoring the fact that temperature is but one facet of climate change. Meanwhile energy companies will happily talk about the potential of ‘clean coal’ (surely the contender for the most misleading piece of marketing ever) and shale gas while ignoring other views like petulant children with fingers placed firmly in their ears.

Skeptics have a right to say everything they do. If a scientists truly believes that our climate is not changing and, more importantly, this change is not anthropogenic then he or she should say so. If the process of peer review doesn’t discredit their claims then maybe they have a case. Unfortunately this logical approach to skepticism isn’t being allowed to function because the majority of the skeptic movement are in fact, not scientists and when it comes to the PR element of the debate skeptics resemble a boxer repeatedly punching below the belt while the believers stick resolutely to Queensbury rules.  Before anything else this must change because while people have a right to be wrong, they do not have the right to be wrong and remain unchallenged.

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