• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

We don’t need another conspiracy theory

For a long time, I have been concerned about the confusions and anxieties sown by alarmist climate-change crusaders. So why do I now feel uncomfortable with the publication of hundreds of emails that appear to confirm my concerns, and which reveal some of the deceptions practiced by climate-change crusaders who masquerade as disinterested climate researchers?

‘Climategate’ is being widely discussed in the British and international media. It has involved the publication of private emails sent by employees of the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit – emails which appear to show scientists colluding to ensure that facts do not stand in the way of their ‘science’.

Of course there is little doubt that ‘advocacy research’ – research that is driven, and thus hugely influenced, by an already desired policy goal – plays a key role in framing the discussion of climate change. However, whatever one thinks of the morality of climate-change alarmism, it is important to understand that the people actively involved in this campaign honestly believe in their cause. This is not a movement that consciously seeks to deceive or which conspires to fiddle the figures. It is a lobby driven by powerful beliefs and convictions, which need to be taken seriously if the issues at stake are to be clarified and understood.

Like any crusade, this movement has many people in its ranks who believe that their cause must be promoted by any means necessary. However, it is far easier to discredit acts of conscious manipulation and dishonesty – as seem to appear in the ‘Climategate’ emails – than it is to challenge the powerful convictions and fears that drive the green movement. Indeed, focusing on episodic acts of dishonesty distracts from the far more difficult task of challenging the broader cultural insecurities and mood of misanthropy that fuels climate-change alarmism today.

There’s another reason not to get too excited about ‘Climategate’: in the interests of intellectual integrity. As matters stand today, it is climate-change alarmists who live on a diet of conspiracy theories. They continually tell stories of hidden forces that are sinisterly subverting the real science. They use the language of the Inquisition to stigmatise their opponents, labelling them ‘deniers’, suggesting that they are lying about something that they actually know to be true. Climate-change alarmists always allude to the ‘story behind the story’, and to the hidden agenda of allegedly oil-funded ‘deniers’, rather than face up to substantive arguments about the politics of climate change.

In such circumstances, focusing on the behind-the-scenes emailing and manoeuvring of crusading climate scientists – where now anti-greens accuse greens of being involved in a vast, top-secret conspiracy – may inadvertently reinforce the conspiratorial outlook that dominates the discussion of climate change. And such an outlook is inhospitable to intellectual clarification and the search for the truth. Those who are genuinely interested in furthering humanity’s understanding of the workings of the Earth’s climate should resist the temptation to play the conspiracy card.

In any case, no objective observer should really be surprised by what the emails reveal. However, the emails do remind us, quite forcefully, of one deeply regrettable development in recent years: the politicisation of the institution of ‘peer review’. The emails reveal scientists having quite cynical and political discussions about whose work should get the peer-review stamp and whose should not.

In an ideal world, the system of peer review – where scholarly work is subjected to the scrutiny of other experts in the field – would ensure that disinterested science informed public discussion and debate. Through peer review, the authority of science might help to clarify disputes and inject public discussion with some useful ideas and facts. Unfortunately, however, this ideal is rarely realised in practice. Even at the best of times the system of peer review is not entirely free from vested interests. As many of my colleagues in academia know, peer-reviewing is often conducted through a kind of mates’ club, between friends and acquaintances, and all too often the matter of who gets published and who gets rejected is determined by who you know and where you stand in a particular academic debate.

Nevertheless, for all its imperfections, peer reviewing worked for many years as a more or less adequate system of quality control. In the end, the damage caused by cliquishness and self-serving academic interest tended to be overcome through debate and the triumph of scientific integrity. But the situation has now changed. Unfortunately, in some disciplines in recent decades, peer reviewing has become enormously politicised. And as a result, peer reviewing is often more of a cultural than a scientific accomplishment. Indeed, the way that peer review is now used in public debate as a form of divine revelation – where we are told that ‘the peer-reviewed science’ shows that we must believe and do certain things – indicates how this institution risks being corrupted by advocacy researchers.

The politicisation of peer review in the climate-change debate raises fundamental issues that are of direct concern to all scientists. Indeed, the very possibility of having a scientifically informed public conversation requires a rethink about how the quality of evidence is assessed. To realise that objective, we must depoliticise the system of peer review and encourage scientists to think of themselves as disinterested researchers. That does not mean that scientists can’t have opinions or must not participate in political campaigns. What it means is that they do not confuse their science with their ideology. That way, they would not have to worry every time they pressed the ‘Send’ button on their email.

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