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The Government that cried “WOLF”.

November 15th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics, Uncategorized by

earthOk, back from the USA – and just a tad jet-lagged so apologies for the delay in this post.

But only back 24 hours and I notice that according to The Times yesterday only 41% accept as an established scientific fact that global warming is taking place and is largely man made. Look at it another way only 1/3 (32%) agree that climate change is happening but believe it has not yet been proven to be largely man-made.

Should we really be that surprised? Afterall we have become not just sceptical of politicians, but actually assume that if politicians say it, it’s most likely untrue, twisted, manipulated, or at best a half-truth – which still counts as a lie in my book.

We have also had “scientists say” thrust down our throats just one time too many (rather like the “if it saves just one child” mantra). Those words have become meaningless. Worse , they begin to grate. If I hear the words “scientists say” these days, my immediate response is “which scientists?”, “who funded their research?”, “what motivated them to do this research in the first place?” “Where can I see the FULL study, not just the edited highlights”. These questions, are rarely, if ever, answered. The media doesn’t look beyond the startling headline grabber it will give them, and politicians are more swayed by where they perceive public opinion to be than what the facts of the matter are. Explain why else the Liberal Democrats have taken such a pathetic stand on the smoking ban or drugs classification – neither of which enjoyed  rigorous scientific research  to justify the legislation introduced.

But let’s not get distracted with lifestyle freedoms, lets consider more “serious” scientific studies of late.  Because , to be clear, scientists are not omnipotent gods incapable of error. They get stuff wrong.

 In 1999 Government scientists were telling us that “hundreds of thousands” could die from CJD, a year later the projections had been down-scaled to just a few thousand at most.

In 2001 the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, David King, insisted upon a massive cull to stop an outbreak of foot and mouth. Most farmers and vets said that the epidemic could be contained by vaccine, or isolation methods. But hell no, literally millions of sheep and cows were killed, farms put out of business, the tourist trade decimated.  

In April 2006 Government reports suggested that as many as 700,000 of us might die from bird flu. Even scientists most modest estimates stated that around 50,000 in the UK would die. To date about 500 people around the world have been infected with H5N1 and around 260 of them have died.

And only this year Government told us that 65,000 would be wiped out by swine flu. The current projections stand at 20,000 – and even those look widely pessimistic at this stage.

 Of course all of the above are to some extent “UK only”  issues and with climate change we are talking about a world problem – with scientists and governments from many countries involved in the debate. But even with climate change problems exist with what “the scientists say”….. In the 1980s scientists talked of  “global cooling” or a new Ice Age. In the 1990s this became “global warming”, now it is “climate change”.  And , let’s be clear, almost every country has a significant number of scientists that question their government’s analysis – we are not the only ones who are asking questions about “the science”.

Nor has it helped that we have been beaten – with almost religious zeal – by the environmental stick, witnessing increasing levels of legislation introduced under the name of climate change, that have raided our wallets and invaded our privacy.  And frankly even those that really do accept the worst case scenario on climate change are frustrated by the cynicism with which this potential crisis has been exploited.

So it is not very surprising therefore that when we are told by scientists  and politicians that we are all going to hell in a hand cart, we will, after a while, start to question it.

If all this sounds like I am a “climate-denier” – a term I particularly dislike – then I am sorry. I am probably in the one third that believe that there is some form of climate change but am not convinced that we have correctly identified the cause (or causes) of the problem. I am also pretty sure that we are far from finding the right solutions.

So, in my view, it is an inevitable consequence of Government action to date that we have responded the way we have in The Times survey (US citizens are equally sceptical). This Government – and others – have used science to cry wolf once too often. When faced with more pressing economic issues that are much more immediate, and if we add on top of that our scepticism of what Governments say – and increasingly what “science says” – why would we do anything other than start to doubt the information we are given.

If we are to move forward on this issue it must start with a consensus on the science – and the population buying into what the scientists have to say. That’s going to be tough given the respective track records of politicians and scientists.

It’s time for Governments to make a fresh start. Fewer, better researched, scientific studies would help. So would a  more consistent approach from Government on when they will and wont take heed of their own science. Finally a more rounded view of the problem must surely now be implemented – one that embraces geo-technological solutions with as much vigour as modification of population behaviour. If politicians can actually discard their natural instincts to micro-manage every aspect of our lives with scant regard to our intelligence – oh and start being honest with us about “green taxes”, then maybe we can actually solve this issue. But I doubt we can do it before then.

16 Responses to “The Government that cried “WOLF”.”

  1. Matt Says:

    The projections for bird flu were for if (when?) it mutated and became transmissible between humans. The distinctive thing about bird flu is the case fatality rate of over 50%. The distinctive thing about swine flu is the high reproduction ratio – i.e. it’s really infectious, so lots of people get it. Imagine a strain of flu with the reproduction ratio of swine flu and the fatality rate of bird flu. That’s what’s scary, and that’s why it’s prudent for governments to be prepared. Everyone knows someone who’s had swine flu now. Imagine if half of those were now dead.

    Much of your criticism of scientists is actually the fault of sloppy reporting of scientific findings by the media. This is especially true of health and other risk-related findings. This is what teaches us to be sceptical of scientific advice. It’s more that we should be sceptical of the media.

    You say that there needs to be a consensus among scientists about climate change. There is. There is as much consensus as there is about anything. Climate change is real, and it’s man made.

  2. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Matt, thanks for your comments.

    You say ” Much of your criticism of scientists is actually the fault of sloppy reporting of scientific findings by the media” ….. I agree that media reporting is insufficiently forensic and often takes the “scientific report” at face value rather than asking the types of questions I raise in my post – but I have already said that.

    The problem however is that all too often the politicians have twisted, “sexed up”, or reprioritised the findings of scientists (and others)to create a climate of fear, urgency, or justification of actions that are not actually been backed up by the findings. Or, they have simply ignored/buried the research when it does not suit. Scientists have also been backward at coming forward about the lack of certainty, possibility of error, or indeed to stand up for themselves when their findings have been abused or buried. There are probably too many scientists that are too intimately dependent on Government money to openly stand up to them – perhaps a more arms length relationship between scientists and Governments would be helpful in this regard.

  3. Someone who knows what he's talking about Says:

    Most farmers and vets said that the epidemic could be contained by vaccine, or isolation methods.

    Actually, no they didn’t. The NFU and the FUW and the UFU etc were all in favour of a cull – what ever they told their members that is what they were demanding off ministers in HMG and the devolved administrations.

    After a while the PM realised that they were taking us for a ride and tried to build a consensus for a vaccination programme but he knew that he was never going to be able to deliver it without the support of farmers, but they never relented.

    Next time it will be vaccination from the start and tough shit on the farmers if it locks them out of markets. Tourism is a much bigger industry and was done far more damage last time.

  4. Angela Harbutt Says:

    To “someone who knowa what he is talking about”

    I did not say the NFU supported vacination – I stated that that most farmers supported it. I have lived and breathed the horticultural/agricultural world all my life. I experienced first hand the tensions between NFU and many farmers at the time – and witnessed many resginations from the NFU as a result of their stance. To be clear there was ludicrous, excessive and cruel overkill of disease-free animals at the time. I believe something in the region of 80% of the six million or so slaugthered animals were clean of the disease. Many – we dont know how many – of those animals were not dead at the time of incineration due to poor practice by inexperienced people paid to execute the cull. It was a cruel, heartless massacre. I also believe that it is now widely accepted that the overkill was a result of poor mathematical modelling that did not reflect the epidemiology of the epidemic.

  5. Dick Puddlecote Says:

    Great article. I am one who now tends to disbelieve every ‘scientific’ study reported in the media as a matter of course. This is because I have seen, and am still seeing, some quite stunning perversions of science being hurled around by fake charities on a daily basis, all of which are eagerly gobbled up by an ever more gullible administration.

    As you say, there is a need for a small band of incorruptible scientists to breathe honesty into the statistics. But then, who is going to appoint them? The inevitable result is that we will see a group hand-picked by government to produce studies favourable to the party in power at any given time.

    It all stinks.

  6. Angela Harbutt Says:

    I hear you Dick – I suggested an arms length approach to the appointment of scientists – but am not really sure how “arms length” any scientific body can be. It might work if you can ensure the scientists on any given project are appointed and run by some cross party parliamentary group that is genuinely balanced politically -and those appointed to the appointing group have some credible scientific understanding rather than just the party leaders cronies getting a bone. Even then…..

  7. David Heigham Says:

    The real problem ain’t the scientists. It is the way their findings get reported. Interested parties selecting findings while ignoring the qualifications and other findings is one half of it.

    The other half of the problem is that every time the scientists say there is a real chance, if not a big chance, of something very bad here, it is written up as “Scientists warn of disaster!” rather than “We need more information on this, urgently!”. The latter is like a shepherd’s boy saying “I saw some droppings a bit like a wolf’s” and everybody shouting “Wolf! Wolf!” without going to see if the droppings are from a wolf. Bad for the shepherd boy’s reputation, possibly fatal for the flock when everybody gets usd to ignoring the shouts, but not the boy’s fault.

    As for global warming, the odds are roughly a 1000 to one on that it is happenning and roughly 100 to one that if it is not checked it will eventually be a disaster for humanity. Whatever the rabid environmentalists say, it does not really mater whether or not we caysed what has already happened. What matters for our future is whether we can do anything to stop it. If we can, the case for getting on with it before the warming gets out of hand is pretty obvious. For classical liberals, that is an excellent opportunity to press for the replacement of distorting taxes on income with less distorting ones on the consumption of anything that produces greenhouse gases.

  8. Geoff Payne Says:

    The problem is that you do not have any alternative source of information. If your contention is that climate change isn’t happening, or it is but has nothing to do with human activity, what is that based on? Wishful thinking would appear to be the answer.
    Or maybe it is ideological blindness? If global warming is taking place, for the sake of argument, then Libertarians would appear not to have any answers.
    That is why Liberal Vision are arguing against what the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal party have fundamentally supported since the 1970s, that is their Green perspective, where they have always been ahead of the established political parties.
    I joined the Liberal party partly based on their reputation on the environment.
    You aim to undo all the good work made by generations of Liberals.

  9. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Geoff – reread my article please. I did not say that climate change is NOT happening I said I am probably “in the one third that believe that there is some form of climate change but am not convinced that we have correctly identified the cause (or causes) of the problem” or identified the right solutions.

    I am not against “green taxes” per se. Am I against stealth taxes dressed up as green taxes – yes. I see little evidence that “green taxes” are being directed to address “green issues” – just filling up the TReasury coffers to be spent on an increasing number of Labour projects. I would not theoretically be against a carbon tax on every item purchased providing this was balanced against lower taxation elsewhere. Am I against even greater invasion of privacy in the name of “climate change” – yes.

    Re the Lib Dems – Personally I would like to see the Lib Dem policy give more weight to technological man-made solutions to probable climate change problems. There seems to be very little indeed about it other than a small bit on carbon capture. And of course green taxes being offset by lower taxes elsewhere.

    These are my views. I believe they fit comfortably within Liberal values.

  10. Julian H Says:

    Geoff, with regards to this:

    “Libertarians would appear not to have any answers [to climate change]”

    Can I ask if you’ve read, and rejected, libertarian arguments on the environment and climate change (regarding property rights and technology, for example) – or are you assuming that all solutions consist of governments responding to “something must be done” and that per se we have no answers? Either way, I hope to feature a few blogs on this in the run up to Copenhagen and, contrary to your assertion, I aim to build on all the good work done by many generations of liberals.

  11. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    In 1999 Government scientists were telling us that “hundreds of thousands” could die from CJD, a year later the projections had been down-scaled to just a few thousand at most

    Yes, and so they could if the new variant CJD worked as was a possibility.

    You list a whole load of things where that is the issue – scientists say there’s a possibility of something high enough to suggest it would be a good idea to make some preparation for it. That does not meant they are saying it is a certainty.

    This is really the issue – too many sloppy media people who don’t understand science, so just don’t see what it means for something to be posed as a hypothesis. Like those silly interviewers who scream at politicians “Give us an answer – yes or no” and get a good reputation for doing that, Paxman or whatever his name is and the like, they can’t see that sometimes there isn’t such an answer. Sometimes the answer is “yes if …” or “maybe 10% chance of yes, but that’s just a crude guess”.

    Of course, very few people understand basic probability – despite its crucial nature, which is why arguments on these issues often get nowhere.

    When there are so many people who want jobs in the media, why can’t they recruit people who have the basic skills required to do the job? So much of news is science-based that a degree in science ought to be almost mandatory or at least highly desirable. How many journos have one? Almost none. As for journalists of local papers who have any understanding of local government, well, … You might have thought with the unis churning our people with BAs in journalism some of those churned out might just twig that as work on a local paper is a good starting point, and what the council is doing is bread-and-butter local paper stuff, maybe a little knowledge in that area might be an idea. But no, in my experience journos on local papers haven’t a clue on how local government works, which is why they so often just print press releases from the council and yah-booh-sucks comments from the Opposition.

  12. Matt Says:

    I’ve not crashed my car in years, and here I am wearing a seatbelt and paying for airbags like some kind of chump.

  13. Angela Harbutt Says:

    I can see a thread developing through these comments… people clearly expect more of commercial enterprises such as ITV, Daily Mail , The Telegraph or Sky than they do of their politicians. I just dont get that.

    I accept that, until the BBC is privatised, that it has a duty to be forensic in its news – but please do not demand that private media enterprises carry the entire burden of “mispresentation” because governments and politicians are somehow helpless players in this. The government and quango’s PR budgets dwarf most media outlets entire research budgets.

    So I find it simply laughable that when media outlets get briefings from public bodies (governments , quangos et al) they are then are supposed to somehow single handedly “discover the truth” buried in page 97 of the document. That’s not how the real world operates.

    By all means ask the BBC why it pays Jonathan Ross £6million a year but can’t find the resources to tackle the government over on its “scientific studies” – they are funded by the taxpayer to inform and educate not feed us with Govt proaganda – but dont expect commercial news companies to hold the government to account – thats the job of the opposition parties -and the BBC – and on the conscience of those write the reports and then allow the data to be “spun” by the politicians.

  14. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    I can see a thread developing through these comments… people clearly expect more of commercial enterprises such as ITV, Daily Mail , The Telegraph or Sky than they do of their politicians. I just dont get that.

    Indeed, commercial enterprises will serve the interests of commerce. If that means pumping out propaganda, often cunningly disguised as entertainment, for the idea that the rich and powerful who own things like the big media are aristocrats we should naturally look up to and endow with more privileges and let them govern us, so be it.

    How can ordinary people make rational decisions when the aristocracy so controls the flow of information like this? How much are we controlled by a carefully built entertainment culture which promotes passivity in the face of privilege?

    Your idea that the only opponents of true liberty are the things labelled “state” is laughably out of date. It only really made sense for a fairly short period in the 20th century. Our political ancestors knew better when they spoke of enslavement by “poverty, ignorance and conformity”.

  15. Julian H Says:

    “passivity in the face of privilege”

    Careful Angela, I think your Porsche might be in trouble at next year’s conference.

  16. Charlie Says:

    When assessing the environmental large amounts of data from chemistry, physics, biology and geology are required taken from many locations, often over a period of many years. Coring the ice in the Artic, Antarctic or Siberia or maesuring changes in the oceans over decades, in order to determine past climates is expensive. The problem is that it is expensive to collect data and much easier and cheaper to undertake computer modelling. Climate does vary naturally, far more than people realise. To determine whether changes are man made and specifically due to carbon dioxide requires vast amounts of data.Modelling the Earth , which is a three dimensional object requires extremely powerful computers. If far more effort had been put into obtaining data 25 years ago, we wold be in much better position to make a decision. All raw data and the computer codes supporting carbon dioxide global warming must be made public.