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A new dark age?

Thanks to Alex Cull for this transcript of a segment on yesterday's Today programme on BBC Radio 4. This concerned the alleged threat of an end to enlightenment values.

Earlier this year, the President of the AAAS, America's leading academy of science, claimed that the politicisation of science, on issues such as climate change, genetic modification, evolution even, was driving the U.S. into a new Dark Age. And over here, scientists complain that politicians routinely cherry-pick data, casually disregard the facts when they don't fit their preconceptions. So are we descending into a new Age of Unreason in public policy? Our science correspondent, Tom Feilden, has been weighing the evidence, and has found some encouraging signs that the geeks are fighting back.


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Reader Comments (74)

BBC journalists, in their ignorance, hold the incredible opinion that scientists are never wrong.

May 26, 2012 at 8:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil McEvoy

Unless they are involved in GM research in which case any member of the public has the right to destroy their work, or shale gas, where the British Geological Survey's estimates can be ignored or discarded on the advice of wind turbine operators.

May 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid S

Nina Fedoroff: 'This isn't a new problem, but it's an urgent and growing problem. Fewer people believe in climate change with each passing year. And the conviction that vaccinations cause autism is alive and well. What a tragedy.'

A lot of cognitive dissonance here. Ms Fedoroff fails to comprehend that the people who fervently believe in CAGW and the dire threat to 'Gaia' are often the very same people who refuse to have their own children vaccinated due to hippie/green irrationality, resulting in needless tragic deaths (fact) of their own and others' babies and children from preventable diseases such as whooping cough.

This criminal level of irresponsibility is common to those of an 'alternative' bent. There may well be a new Dark Age, despite the efforts of people like climate change skeptics to hold the line against unreason.

May 26, 2012 at 8:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris M

Surely, as soon as science is used to tell people what to do, it is by definition "politicised". That's what politics is - people advocating policy.

Nina Fedoroff:
"If you're speaking from your best scientific knowledge, and you're saying 'World, wake up. This is what's happening, these are the facts', if we don't do something about it, with every year it gets harder and harder, and we're doing - nothing."

There's the politicisation. To then complain that science is in trouble because it's been politicised is baffling.

May 26, 2012 at 9:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

Chris M
And one could add further Nurse's rather bizarre conflation of those who are sceptical of global warming science with those who oppose GM crops.
Do these people never look past the end of their nose?

May 26, 2012 at 9:10 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

There is only one way of dealing with anti-science and that is open debate & transparency.
Something climate "scientists" seem reluctant to do.
When the argument revolves around the acceptance of a consensus you know that open debate and transparency are not allowed as they will not give the "right" answer.

May 26, 2012 at 9:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterConfusedPhoton

Keith Kloor is covering a similar theme over at his always interesting Coolide-a-Scape blog.

Commenter Tom Scarf puts it well...

Environmentalists tend to fear, dare I say, everything. Fear of radiation, fear of genetic engineering, fear of carbon, fear of immoral corporations, fear of the future, etc. The fear is based on a worldview that the environment is extremely fragile and even minor alterations can unleash an unstoppable unexpected chain reaction that will lead to a lot of pain and suffering. There view of the environment is essentially:

Don’t.f*** It.might.bite.

There is also low confidence in our ability to detect a problem “in time” and to take action to adapt to, or reverse, a problem that has not been previously predicted.

It’s a very conservative (not the political definition) view. Take no action that may have undesirable consequences. And definitely get control of the cowboys out there and make sure they don’t mess things up.

He then contrasts the greenies with their opposites

The other side of the coin are the cowboys who are gung ho, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, let’s go to the moon. They view the earth as stable “enough” and the human influences to be minute in the grand scheme. They have not so much confidence in the fact that they will never make a mistake, but confidence that they can and will recover from their inevitable mistakes. You get to the answer a lot faster by taking risks, then you do plodding along scared of making a mistake. There will be some casualties, but that is the price of progress.

Then some background...

It is not a coincidence that the opposing sides tend to come from job environments that reflect their views. Environmentalists from a tenure lifetime job world of academia and stable public sector jobs, and the opposing side private sector from a “I might get laid off every single day” and I survive on my merits alone. Private sector people, particularly small business and entrepreneurs, are simply much more comfortable with risk.

May 26, 2012 at 9:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

The age of REASON is long gone......We now live in the age of STUPID.

e.g.....A low CARBON economy = Anti LIFE Stupidity.

All the GREEN ANTIHUMANISTS are not interested in REASON......STUPID will do to progress their ANTIHUMANISM.

May 26, 2012 at 9:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurice@TheMount

It had Chris Mooney on it, so it is of course useless. Whats the betting he gets more BBC airtime over the next few months ? After all the BBC is moving towards the "denier" language.

May 26, 2012 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterMorph

Wow - there are a lot of great transcripts on that site! For instance, there's the Paul Nurse Horizon programme 'Science under attack' and a talk by Peter Lilley (May 1 2012) on the Climate Change Act.

Great work - thank you Alex!

May 26, 2012 at 10:05 AM | Registered CommenterDR

The politicisation of science, on issues such as climate change, began with the demonstrably shonky behaviour of that group of individuals known as The Team.

If we as skeptics do not answer them at the political level as well as the scientific, it is akin to giving these charlatans a free hand to do whatever they want with our economies, politics and lives.

If The Team had stuck to the science in the first place, none of this acrimonious debate would have happened.

We should not let this group of displaced used-car salesmen determine the future use of energy.

May 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Thanks, DR - many more to come, hopefully!

May 26, 2012 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

The prospect of domination of the nations scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

- Eisenhower´s farewell address

May 26, 2012 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered Commenteropastun

This isn't a direct response to the article, but to one or two of the comments - actually I've written a brief post about it on my own blog

It depresses me that people tend to take their opinions in matching sets rather than taking each case on its evidential merits.

Is there anyone here who thinks climate change might be haunted by junk science, but who *doesn't* think nuclear power and GM are great, and who doesn't have an outdated conviction that 'lefties' and socialists run the world?

Gawd help us all...

May 26, 2012 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterQuid Sapio

When I see anyone willingly associating themselves with Chris “I am right you are wrong and my made up science says so” Mooney and then talking about an Age of Unreason, I can only laugh.

Who buys this crap?

May 26, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Quid Sapio

Not sure what you are getting at as I would assume that people providing comments have varied opinions.

For me I would describe myself as a left wing scientist who cannot see much evidence in support of anthropogenic global warming. I have no problem with nuclear power being part of our electricity generation. I have no problem with GM foods providing sufficient research has been done,

I do not think "that 'lefties' and socialists run the world?"

I would have though that many people here may well share those views and many disagree with them!

C'est la Vie!

May 26, 2012 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterConfusedPhoton

Well, I started crafting a post to this, and as I was chislling away I realised what a complete load of vacuous bilge the entire piece was and that the main point worth elucidating on was that this journalistic insult was instigated by Justin Webb of the BBC-whom I am required by law to pay-spent my hard-earned hackers on arranging a meeting between like-minded individuals to deliver an on-air message conforming to a pre-conceived political notion with which I neither agree nor vote.
It is with some irony that I note that the topic for discussion (within which a political message was embedded: belief in climate change) was itself the politicisation of science policy communication.
Orwell himself would have been proud of such wonderful doublespeak, and all from the klaxon of the Ministry of Truth.

May 26, 2012 at 12:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustin Ert

I like your reasoning ChrisM.

In my discussions with warmists who always like to impress on me the fact that the science can not be disputed and who are themselves the type of people who would be against vaccinations, I now have the answer.

Thank you.

May 26, 2012 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRexAlan

Most definitely when a person who has reportedly advocated poisoning the public water supply to control population is elected to the Royal Society......

May 26, 2012 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

I've been concerned about Enlightenment values for a few decades now. In fact ever since a hysterical environmentalist got herself invited to my high school when I was studying for science 'A' levels. Those of us wanting to take her to task for her inaccuracies could barely get a word in edgeways and were given a good scolding.

Scientists also care about “The Environment”. I've spent a good portion of my life actually getting out and walking/climbing on “The Environment”. That advocate was full of environmental concern and hubris, but clearly very little science and mathematics.

Has anything changed since C.P. Snow wrote about the "Two Cultures"? The BBC still employs "science&environment" journalists/correspondents who have pitifully inadequate scientific background. The upper echelons of scientific institutions such as the Royal Society do not appear immune to being absorbed by the 'establishment'. Perhaps it was ever thus. I can't really see where the Royal Society can take any credit for my science education.

Fortunately, I think the Enlightenment is still quite healthy in some parts of the world. China, India, the USA. All of them today received another scolding by you-know-who at the BBC:

May 26, 2012 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Then, of course, there's the investments of the BBC pension-fund to think about...

May 26, 2012 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

@ Quid Sapio

¨people tend to take their opinions in matching sets¨

The ¨matching set (of 3): pro AGW, contra GM and nuclear technology¨ has a large overlapping.
Whilst the first being only a conjecture lacking proof ¨day.. by ..year¨, the others proof to be in production. More, they provide solutions for the non-problems addressed by the AGW community.
Therefore: pro AGW needs to fight the GM and nuclear technology. That is why these come into one bucket.

May 26, 2012 at 1:40 PM | Unregistered Commenteropastun

Then, of course, there's the investments of the BBC pension-fund to think about...

Instead of repeating that statement, how about looking at what it's invested in?

BG Group
British American Tobacco

There's the top 6 for you.

May 26, 2012 at 2:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

@ Quid Sapio:

What is the UN, if not Leftist?
What is the Obama administration, if not Leftist?
What is the EU, if not Leftist?
What is the Australian government, if not Leftist?
Canadian Liberal government? Leftist.
South America? Leftist.
China? Need I say?
Russia? Jeez.

I could go on. But no, of course I don't believe Lefties and Socialists run the world. /sarc

May 26, 2012 at 2:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid, UK

Make a choice: do you care about 'the enlightenment' or do you you care about 'the environment'?

May 26, 2012 at 2:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterShub

The ‘scientists are always right’ meme mentioned by someone earlier has an alarming correlation with individuals who believe in things like homoeopathy and are anti-GM crops. Their overwhelming belief in the power of scientific thinking seems to evade them on these issues.

There is another area which needs more research. In my own life I've come across an alarming correlation between those who strongly believe in the CAGW cause and those who are 9/11 Troofers. Try it yourself. The next time you're talking to a CAGW advocate ask them if they believe in the standard (i.e. the truth) 9/11 narrative.

It shocking how many of them start quoting John Pilger, Chomsky or Loose Change.

May 26, 2012 at 2:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-record

Yes, far too many people confuse the opinions of scientists with scientific thinking. The latter removes the need for the former.


May 26, 2012 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterBad Andrew

How is it possible for John Pickett not to notice that it isn't the climate skeptics, but the advocates of "climate science", who want to destroy GM crops?

May 26, 2012 at 3:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeale

troll alert

May 26, 2012 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered Commenteropastun

Personally I'm an anti-CAGW who is also anti-nuclear. I'll believe nuclear power is a good deal when it doesn't require free uncapped reinsurance from the government. It's ironic that one of the arguments which the greens faced from the establishment in the 1980s on nuclear power issues ("you're not scientists, you aren't qualified to comment") is now used against climate sceptics.

May 26, 2012 at 6:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterHoHum


Although I can appreciate people's unease with nuclear power, but as a person who was once involved in aspects of the nuclear energy and followed the Windscale enquiry I never once heard "you're not scientists, you aren't qualified to comment".

What I remember most was irrational arguments by environmental advocates like Greenpeace who brought in dubious US "eminent" scientists to the enquiries. Actually it was a bit like climate science now (e.g. Jim Hansen). The difference now is that environmental groups have become much more aggressive and have significantly more funding. They care little about conservation and are driven by politics.

May 26, 2012 at 6:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterConfusedPhoton

"So you have evidence that a significant proportion of climate scientists wish to destroy GM crops do you? What's the betting that you don't have a jot of evidence and you're just making it all up."

It's a sure bet that you're just making it up, troll. Misinterpretation, naughty, naughty. People don't need evidence to substantiate things they never said, so don't be so silly. Using cheap rhetorical tricks demeans you. 'advocates of "climate science" ' are in no way equivalent to 'a significant proportion of climate scientists', and you know it, so this is trolling. Being part of an advocacy group, even one with the laughable name of Union of Concerned Scientists, doesn't make you a scientist. You actually know that, so you and we all know you're trolling here.

May 26, 2012 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterScientistForTruth

"And over here, scientists complain that politicians routinely cherry-pick data, casually disregard the facts when they don't fit their preconceptions."

And of course certain 'scientists' never "..........cherry-pick data, casually disregard the facts when they don't fit their preconceptions."

May 26, 2012 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Niel McEvoy the weight of evidence - climategate e-mails; involvement with political pressure groups or " charities" as they used to be called; fawning opinion pieces about renewable "energy" whilst ignoring skeptical pieces about the disastrous economics of the green revolution would suggest that the BBC has an agenda and is ignoring its own Charter. Paul Nurse directed the BBC to do just that in his recent review of the BBCs coverage of the "science" of climate change ( like all the other reviews he carefully avoided actually looking at the science). So no, the BBC is not ignorant. The BBC, apparently the RS and it would seem much of academia in the West is politicised and biased. Why are we surprised? It would seem that us big bad skeptics are also romantics at heart. Time to wake up and smell the coffee. This Titanic isn't turning on its own. The AGW scaremongering will further sink the reputation of science, the media and in particular the BBC, these institutions have ensured that AGW is the one "scientific" arena that everybody knows about and is engaged with. What becomes of science education and public education if we are always skeptical of those institutions? Take a look across the pond and shudder. When no- one has confidence in any authority, anything goes and all things become credible from 9-11 fantasists and MI5 hits on Princesses to the belief that we can power our societies from the sun and the wind. God help us all.

May 26, 2012 at 7:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterNick in Vancouver

Steve Jones , professor of genetics who works on snails mostly, did the BBC science review, not Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society and also a geneticist..

May 26, 2012 at 8:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

Many of the other posts have noted that the pro-CAGW and anti-GM people are the same grouping. "Friends of the Earth" have long campaigned on both fronts. So, (according to the transcript) many environmental groups are both pro and anti science.

By the definition of science as "What Scientist Do", this confusion is entirely understandably. But if science is about making bold statements about the world, that have failed to be falsified by the evidence, then both pro-CAGW are anti-GM are anti science. By the popular definition, suppressing the contrary evidence and keeping the full working away from prying eyes is protecting science. Under my definition, science is about endeavoring to make ever-more precarious and improbable statements, that are still backed up the evidence.

May 26, 2012 at 9:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterManicBeancounter

why would the BBC the RS not be biased.
Far more venerable institutes are infiltrated by red ticks.

Obama got a nobel peace prize "just_for_being_elected"..this should tell something, never mind the long row of other liberal retards with literature and economy prizes. h

May 26, 2012 at 9:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterptw

"There is another area which needs more research. In my own life I've come across an alarming correlation between those who strongly believe in the CAGW cause and those who are 9/11 Troofers. Try it yourself. The next time you're talking to a CAGW advocate ask them if they believe in the standard (i.e. the truth) 9/11 narrative.

It shocking how many of them start quoting John Pilger, Chomsky or Loose Change."


Firstly, Chomsky is not and never has been a 9/11 Truther. Nor has John Pilger. So why would Truthers be quoting them?

Seems to me you're showing some of the same political naivety I was talking about before. You're assuming that doubting the official story of 9/11 equates with being on the Left, and have just assumed two prominent Lefties must therefore be 9/11 skeptics.

It's a nice example of the errors of inclusive, non-analytical thought. ;-)

May 26, 2012 at 9:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterQuid Sapio

Could somebody explain the difference between genetic change caused by breeding and genetic change caused by splicing.

May 26, 2012 at 10:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner

“A new dark age?”

I give you a proxy!

The more publically funded (incentivised) scientists declare "The science is settled" the darker the age becomes.

May 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

"And the conviction that vaccinations cause autism is alive and well."

Peer reviewed journal the Lancet said so. And did not with draw the paper for decades.

May 26, 2012 at 11:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

at least we now know the first's the messiah himself !

May 26, 2012 at 11:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterptw

I can manage to be lightly leftist, be highly sceptical of AGW, mildly pro-nuclear and firmly pro-GM.

The boxes the extremists try to put us into are false.

Some people are so far to the right that everyone else is pretty much a leftist. So from there point of view the world is almost entirely to the left of them. That says more about them than it does about who is a leftist.

Lumping China, Russia and the EU together, as if they had even the slightest in common about their systems of government, just shows how absurd their position is.

May 27, 2012 at 12:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

their point of view. Sorry.

May 27, 2012 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

Science is not consensus; it's successful replicability and prediction. In a world in which "scienists" can publish alleged results in leading journals without full disclosure of their data and methods, I would say Science is already dead as a doornail. Scientists who don't speak out have become part of its stinking corpse.

May 27, 2012 at 1:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

Greenpeace, perhaps the most powerful activist proponent of CAGW science, destroyed last year the entire CSIRO experimental GM wheat crop because they don't trust the science.

Imagine skeptics breaking into the Met premises and trashing their latest supercomputer.

May 27, 2012 at 1:48 AM | Unregistered CommentersHx

Or to put it another way. How does a gene knows if it was spliced or mutated.

May 27, 2012 at 1:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner

"Could somebody explain the difference between genetic change caused by breeding and genetic change caused by splicing."


"Or to put it another way. How does a gene knows if it was spliced or mutated."

Well, if the GM-seed starts dying off after a number of reproductions, then it'll know that it's been spliced or mutated for the worse.

I am told that big agricultural corporations like Monsanto insert a 'suicide gene' into their GM-seeds so that farmers won't be able to benefit from the seeds for more than a few harvests and will have to go back to buying new seeds from the capitalist pigs.

Maybe it's just a scare story. I'd find it hard to believe that a corporation can act like a psychopath and get away with it in a world run by communist United Nations. ;-)

May 27, 2012 at 2:23 AM | Unregistered CommentersHx

Temperature records Al Gore hasn't mentioned:

Indianapolis 500 records
Highest Race Temperatures
Year Degrees °F °C Race Winner Notes
1937 92° 33° United States Wilbur Shaw
1919 91° 33° United States Howdy Wilcox
1953 91° 33° United States Bill Vukovich
With anecdotal, “unofficial” testimony placing air temperature at the track during the race near or surpassing 100°F / 38°C, potentially the hottest race in history, with at least one fatality, United States Carl Scarborough, due to heat exhaustion
1977 90° 32° United States A.J. Foyt
1978 90° 32° United States Al Unser
Note 96°F / 35°C, claimed for the start of the 2010 race, but subsequent data reviews indicate an inaccurate reporting

Coldest Temperature at Start of Race:
51°F / 11°C, 1992
^ National Weather Service archives for Indianapolis, up to 26 May 2012.

May 27, 2012 at 2:25 AM | Unregistered Commenterferd berple

Could somebody explain the difference between genetic change caused by breeding and genetic change caused by splicing.

There's a huge difference.

Breeding is slow, so there is little chance of surprise run-away characteristics appearing. Breeding does not extend the species beyond its natural variability (no merging tomato genes into cauliflowers).

However your dichotomy is wrong, since the alternative to GM is not natural breeding from selection, which is far too slow. Instead for decades most crop improvements have involved hybridisation or irradiation. These have all the downsides of GM but without the ability to target which gene you changing.

The funniest is when protesters try to protect "natural" maize. But we have been hybridising maize for over a hundred years now.

May 27, 2012 at 4:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

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