The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science
Edgar Elgar 2007
This book by Aynsley Kellow, Professor and Head of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania, Australia, is a provocative and in depth look at the degree to which the scientific underpinnings of environmental policy may be at times, and perhaps even chronically, be subject to a sort of “virtual corruption” in which results are biased consciously or unconsciously to fit what the researchers may perceive to be a virtuous cause of environmental protection; and how increasingly this is facilitated by the movement of actual scientific research away from direct observation and field studies towards a ‘virtual science’ of computer modelling.
Kellow asserts that “a purely ‘scientific’ basis for public policy may be a chimera: there is rarely a linear relationship between science and public policy, with scientific understanding leading to only one policy option.”
Kellow begins with the example of the “khting vor“, a species of horned cow in Vietnam which was on the 2003 Red List of endangered species put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) even though there was every indication that such an animal had never existed. It appeared to be a mythical beast of which numerous museum specimens were in fact fakes. “Much could be written about the process whereby the IUCN consensus (or other international consensus documents on science) was produced, but suffice to say that nobody really had a strong reason to oppose its inclusion, and plenty had some reason to list it. For any skeptics, the invocation of the precautionary principle has been enough to repel dissent. After all, it might have existed…”
In the next chapter Kellow examines the political ecology of conservation biology with reference of one of the bastions of environmental ideology, the question of biodiversity. This is one of the key indicators of human impact on the natural world: Greenpeace for example cites species loss at being anything from 50,000 to 100,000 species each year. However, as Kellow points out, few of these are actual known species whose extinction has been documented and confirmed. The IUCN-World Conservation Union, Kellow cites, claim that only ‘more than 800′ plant and animal extinctions since 1500 have been confirmed; the rest appear to be computer generated extrapolations. To put this in context, no one knows how many species there are anyway, with about 1.7million have been described while estimates of the total range from 5 to 100 million. Kellow cites examples of species that were believed to have been extinct that have then reappeared; and while loss of biodiversity and extinctions are of course concerning, most extinctions cited in the very large figures of Greenpeace for example seem to be “virtual’ extinctions.
(It might also be pointed out that in some cases extinction might be a good thing: in a recent conversation with an out-spoken neo-Malthusian of my acquaintance on this topic I gave smallpox and the AIDS virus as examples, to which the response was ‘Why?’- he seemed comfortable with the argument that since every species has equal right to exist alongside ourselves, we have no right to fight against diseases.)
The ideology behind this comes from the notion of the primacy of biodiversity- more diversity is always good as this contributes to the resilience ofthe ‘balance of nature’ and the strengthening of the fragile ‘web of life’.
Kellow questions these assumptions as well, arguing that “over the past 30 years the idea of adaptation to disturbance” has replaced the concept of the climax community among most ecological scientists” and goes onto say:
It is a point of some interest that in the popular imagination, the stability of the climax community is probably still the dominant ‘myth of nature’, sustained by constant repetition by political ecologists, and like ‘sustained yield’, the progenitor of ‘sustainable development’ (which emerged in a social context of great uncertainty in Germany), no doubt offering the reassurance of stability in uncertain and rapidly changing times. Similarly, ‘climate change’ suggests that the climate doesn’t usually change, which geological science tells us is poppycock.
Kelllow gives other examples of this: if the ecosystem (or the climate) is always changing, what state are we supposed to try to conserve? Whatever decisions we take in ecological management, they will inevitably be governed by our own human values about nature. A classic example of this is the ‘native-exotic’ debate: for example, in the woodlands of Glengariff near here, when they were granted SAC (Special Area od Conservation) status over 10 years ago, all the conifers including some high-grade timber such as Cedar and Douglas Fir were removed (I know as I have a couple of beams from those trees in my roundhouse frame) in order to keep the woodland as ‘native’ as possible: but to a permaculturalist, this conservation ethic seems arbitrary and wasteful. Few exotics are actually invasive (rhododendron being an obvious example) while maintaining areas as museum pieces frozen at a particular moment in time involves in keeping humans from taking a sustainable yield. David Holmgren gave me a more extreme example from New Zealand where Douglas Fir was invading the denuded slopes of the Southern Alps. This was dealt with by spraying herbicides from helicopters to deter this ‘invasive’ species.
(Michael Crichton gives other examples of this from the management of National Parks in America which he considers to have been disastrous causing more harm than good, and cites Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: the destruction of America’s first National Park. )
“Environmentalists took to the idea of a self-regulating ecosystem like ducks to Walden Pond” says Kellow, “but they failed to appreciate that it was the product of mathematics, part of the very post-Enlightenment rationality they were rejecting as they began to turn ecological science into religion, where knowledge rested on the ‘almost sensuous intuiting of natural harmonies’, as Theodore Rosak put it, and the balance of nature was thus granted sacred status.”
Kellow continues with these themes in the next two chapters on climate science, which he calls “post-normal” or “virtual” because of its reliance on computer models and its politicization. Kellow presents here a detailed examination of climate science, the problems with computer models and the way this is used to promote in his view a political agenda. They represent the most damning critique of climate science- all the more so since it was written before climategate but points some of the blame at many of the same players.
One of the problems with modelling is that the models are only as good as the data that is fed into them; yet they have a tendency to become tautological as the models themselves are then used to assess the quality of the data: this is one of the ways in which there may be a strong tendency for “virtuous corruption” in the field. For example, Kellow argues that not only does the data have to be nursed in order to “correct” for the Urban Heat Island Effect, but Kellow cites another example of erroneous data being fed into the models leading to misleading conclusions about future emissions from developing nations, an error based upon hugely underestimating their relative wealth and therefore over-estimating the likely increases in emissions as they develop.
Kellow takes a look at the infamous hockey-stick graph published in 1998 by Mann et al (later to play centre-stage in climategate) and how a couple of papers over-turned the accepted history of global temperatures by essentially eliminating the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) in order to make recent warming look “unprecedented.”
“What was surprising was not the publication of a couple of papers which challenged the established scientific orthodoxy- that happens all the time- but that these papers were accepted and became the new orthodoxy so quickly and so readily, and it is clear that both the alacrity and readiness and subsequent defence of the new orthodoxy were inextricably related to the political value of the findings.”
One of the most interesting sections is examples given of papers that might have questioned the so-called “consensus” on climate science, but which were rejected by journals or found difficulty in passing peer-review, and also Kellow’s critique of Oreskes 2004 paper claiming in a survey of all 928 scientific papers produced between 1993 and 2003 using the keywords “climate change” that there was essentially no peer-reviewed literature that questioned the “consensus”. Kellow is eviscerating of this paper which he sees as “palpable nonsense, as could quickly be verified by a replication of the search- a test any referee or editor could have subjected the paper to, had they bothered, and had they been at all skeptical of the claim…. ” …a search of the ISI database using ‘climate change’ produced 12000 papers, and Oreskes was forced to admit… that she had used the three keywords ‘global climate change’, which had reduced the return by an order of magnitude. Science published a correction by Oreskes but it refused to publish a letter from Dr. Benny Peiser which showed that her numbers could not be replicated, and another by Dr. Dennis Bray reporting a survey of climate scientists showing that fewer than 1 in 10 considered that climate change was principally caused by human activity.”
The general view expressed by Oreskes is that skeptics are in the pay of Big Oil and therefore there is a professional motive to cast doubt on the consensus. This naive view extends throughout the environmental movement- detractors to any environmental concern are angrily dismissed as industry stooges. While it is easy to see how the oil and coal industry may have a vested interest in casting such doubts, the gas an nuclear industries stand to gain from Kyoto-style treaties, and carbon- trading may be seriously open to corruption from unscrupulous financial corporations, a charge levied at Enron. Just as homeopathy is marketed as an “alternative” to Evil Big Pharma but is actually sold for maximum profit just like real pharmaceuticals, so multi-national environmental NGOs also have agendas, manipulate data to attract more funding, and the same may also be true of activist scientists.
Kellow then goes on in the next chapter to examine the specific case of the attack on Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.
Swedish Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Bjorn Lomborg was vilified- and continues to be so- not just for taking issue with proposed responses to climate change, namely the rapid Kyoto-style reduction in emissions, but in his challenge of the deeper tenets of environmentalism, namely that doomsday claims made by environmentalists are often not supported by the evidence and things may not be quite as bad as some would have us believe.
Kellow argues that the rise of virtual science based only on models and not checked in the real world reflect “the prominence among science of those who have been supporting a pessimistic view of environmental degradation since the re-emergence of Malthusianism from the late-1960s, exemplified particularly by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and his associates.” Kellow examines a group centered around Ehrlich who vigorously defended there worldview which Lomborg characterized as the “Litany” of environmental doom.
Lomborg tells of how he had begin to examine the claims made by economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, who famously made a bet with Ehrlich that prices of a selection commodities would decline rather than increase, thus giving the lie to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report Limits to Growth. Simon won the bet, and as Lomborg examined his critiques of environmentalist pessimism also began to see how Ehrlich and others were wrong.
What is significant about the response to Lomborg was its irrationality, ad hominem attacks (IPCC chairman Pachauri likened Lomborg to Hitler) and lack of scientific rigour. Importantly however, one of the negative reviewers, Michael Grubb, accepted Lomborg’s view that the Litany was overplayed and in many areas things were in fact getting better:
To any modern professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply
(It just happens that yesterday’s Guardian carries a story on just that- Lester Brown exaggerating the problems of food supply.).
The problem was that many of the attacks from the likes of Michael Grubb, Jeffrey Harvey and Stuart Pimm, and other in the Union of Concerned Scientists, were themselves subject to Lomborg’s critique of promoting the Litany:
Not only were these critics the principle “litanists” whose reputations Lomborg had called into question, they were a small and tightly-defined group. They all seemed to be connected by an association with one person: Paul Ehrlich, who had famously lost the wager with Julian Simon, the contrarian whose statistics Lomborg had set out to disprove.
Kellow makes the important point that of course there are strong reasons to protect biodiversity and address climate impacts, but that the specific policies promoted themselves fall outside the remit of pure science- they require more than just science to justify them; there is an irony in the exaggerated attack on Lomborg since it rather proved his point that the Litany is exaggerated; and that while in medical science for example there is a strong principle of declaring conflict of interests, “rarely do we find declarations of political conflict of interest in the broad field of what we might broadly call ‘environmental science.’ “
Kellow goes on to give many other examples of the politicization of what he calls “activist scientists” in general environmentalism and climate science. “Many ‘activist’ environmental scientists … seem largely unaware that it is there cultural views (or myths) of nature that largely drive their particular ‘take’ on science; while he also makes the case that there are large amounts of funding and vested interest at stake for environmental groups, who gain from the continual belief that we are facing into environmental catastrophe.
This is an important book which documents thoroughly some of the history of the environmental movement and how climate change became its flagship, based on virtual science and a leaping from data to policy that is presented to the public and policy makers as if neutral, when in fact it is frequently imbued with ideology. There are lots of questions to be asked of both the environmental movement and the process of science itself; ultimately however, Kellow concludes that there may not be outright dishonesty involved:
Virtuous corruption need not presuppose deliberate or even conscious manipulation of data or models, but simply the privileging of certain results through the lack of sufficient skepticism of data and methods that provide answers that are politically useful.