In July 2016, Professor Tim Naish and Professor James Renwick embarked on a whistle-stop tour of 11 towns and cities giving a public slide presentation they called Ten by Ten: Climate Change (“Ten things you didn’t know about climate change”). Senior scientists with the NZ Climate Science Coalition raised concerns about the accuracy of the material being presented and on 26 August, before the tour was over, they lodged a complaint (pdf, 2 MB) with the Royal Society of New Zealand.
This blog reported the complaint on 28 August. On or about November 23, a Confidential Draft Report came in from Professors Tennant, Scott and Watts, of the Royal Society Professional Standards and Ethics Panel. Now the the Final Report of the Panel (the Report) has been released, received by the complainants on December 7.
This was not a complaint by the NZ Climate Science Coalition, but by some of its members—scientists and others—some of whom are Fellows or members of the Royal Society. The following comments are addressed to the Ethics Panel, and the term “we” refers to myself and the complainants, not to the Coalition; though I was not a complainant, some of them consulted me and subsequently I prepared material for public release.
Climate change evidence distorted
The complainants were concerned that the nationwide presentation Ten by Ten, presented over several weeks during July, August and September, distorted published climate change evidence and contradicted material published by NASA and NOAA. They were also concerned that the logos of the Royal Society and Victoria University appeared prominently on the publicity and the presentation, since they were endorsing misleading and alarmist information about climate change.
After viewing the final Report, the complainants are concerned that it inadequately addresses their complaints and evinces thinking that is anathema to good science.
The complaint involved infringements of the Society’s rules covering integrity, so it is disappointing that the Report neglects to add a simple assurance that the content of the presentation was true. But the Report has other deficiencies too. The following paragraph numbers appear in the Report.
Paragraph 5 refers to a previous complaint by unnamed persons against an unnamed climate sceptic (“the 2015 Report”) but, though it mentions it at length, it does not explain the issues. Since we know nothing about it we must say it is irrelevant.
Paragraph 7 characterises the climate change debate as being of little significance, referring to “merely” holding different views—as though it doesn’t matter what you believe, since fighting man-made climate change does not demand prodigious funds and effort, and climate predictions do not threaten the environment.
Lack of honesty
This makes little sense, since the paragraph also admits to the existence of “strong disagreement on many climate change issues” among scientists. The professors’ presentation ignored the controversy, a fact which is readily admitted by the Panel but excused as simply “not making time” to address contrary views and was innocent. However, climate change is too important to ignore the controversial areas, some of which are central to the anthropogenic hypothesis. Among senior academics, knowing of significant opposing views and not revealing them in a public forum is the very essence of a lack of honesty.
Then paragraph 7 treats the image of Wellington city under water as similarly innocent. The presenters may indeed have said at the time that the prediction was speculative, but in not disclosing that the only forecast of that extraordinary rise in sea level shown in the doctored photograph comes from a completely fictitious and physically impossible future, the professors let their audience down and again fail the test of honesty.
There is no historical record of unusual sea level rise at Wellington and no science that supports a prediction of dangerous rise, yet that is the impression left by the image of Wellington under water. To our great consternation, the Panel in paragraph 7 admits that the image is not based on science—they call it an ‘intentionally provocative slide ’ but then fail to condemn it or rebuke their members. That is not good enough.
Underplay the importance of climate change
Paragraph 8 asserts that “if [any breaches] were to be established, [they] should be regarded as ‘trivial’”. The Panel thus minimizes the gravity of the professors’ actions and, rather oddly, they also underplay the importance of climate change.
We strongly urge the Panel to reconsider the complaint and produce a ruling that recognises its gravity. The Report refers to the “Society’s weighty disciplinary process,” but we can hardly be concerned with the Society’s administrative difficulties; they are beyond our control. The significance of the topic and the nature of the complaint demand a more thoughtful response than we have seen.
Paragraph 8 says “it was not necessary” for the professors to disclose that some scientists would refute what they said. This is extraordinary. It means that, on a topic of intense public concern, Society members are permitted to give a distorted picture or to express interpretations that don’t reflect the preponderance of published evidence or the need to finalise current research.
Tragic weakening of powerful heritage
In short, the Society has abandoned or proposes to abandon the rule against bias. This would be a tragic weakening of the Royal Society’s previously powerful heritage.
But two factors related to climate change strongly challenge giving in to bias—they deny Society members somehow merit the privilege of presenting biased views to the public, and somehow the public deserves it. This is quite apart from the normal expectation that any scientist in any forum should be “scrupulously honest” (as Society rules state).
The first factor is that the Society shares the professors’ publicly declared position on climate change. What does that mean? The Society agrees climate change will be dangerous and society must be transformed to “fight” it—it is biased in the same way the professors are biased. That’s what made the Panel say “it was not necessary for the presenters to tell the audience that some scientists would not accept all, or indeed any part, of the Presentation.”
Not ethically commendable
But keeping quiet about important controversies means the Society risks being accused of allowing members to indulge their bias not because it was ethically commendable, but just because they agree with it. No scientist should act like this. It is the antithesis of good science and ethical behaviour; it would threaten the independence of its expert advice and smash the foundations of the Society’s tremendous reputation.
The second factor is that the government, too, agrees that climate change will be dangerous and it has pledged to pursue the same policies against it—but that opinion and those policies are based on advice the government received from this very same Royal Society. Our complaint is far from trivial—this is no mere academic argument without real-world repercussions, but enmeshed in all the climate advice the Society gives across the country.
What remains of sceptical climate change argument
It goes further, for to allow Society scientists to ignore their obligation for fair disclosure would shut down whatever remains of sceptical climate change argument at the highest levels.
If the Society were not required to raise at government level an awareness of contentious issues, almost nobody else is capable except groups of sceptics, but the Society and the Professors refer to them with glib dismissiveness as “climate deniers”. Climate policy would be cemented in place for no better reason than a lack of informed scepticism, which would be a scientific abomination, an unthinkable route to expensive public policy and could soon contaminate other areas of policy, crippling society in ways that are today unknown.
Paragraph 9 contains a strange finding: “To the extent that the Complaint sought a ruling that ‘the two members desist from using the Society’s name in conjunction with biased presentations’, the Panel concluded that this was in substance a complaint against the Society for permitting its name and logo to be attached to the publicity and slides for the Presentation. Such a complaint should be taken up with the Society itself rather than pursued through a disciplinary process against the individuals.”
We acknowledge the good sense of that reasoning but confirm that the complaint was indeed addressed to the Royal Society of New Zealand, not to individuals, as the Panel can discover on re-reading it. The Society referred it to the Professional Standards and Ethics Panel, not on our recommendation, as we have no knowledge of the Panels it might assemble, but for its own purposes.
A rather fragile protest
This finding is specious, a little irritating and does not answer our complaint. We were confident that the Society would devise a satisfactory process to investigate the complaint without resorting to the rather fragile protest that it’s too hard. So it has proved. The deplorable result is a different matter.
Paragraph 10 states: “The Panel does point out, however, that the Society’s publicity for the Presentation did make clear that the presentation was the presenters’ personal ‘take’ on the issues, rather than an official view of the Society.”
This is true. It says on the leaflet: “Tim Naish and James Renwick will give their take on this biggest of issues [climate change] – from the very local to the global.”
However, it also says: “the ROYAL SOCIETY of NEW ZEALAND”, and: “With thanks to Victoria University of Wellington for their support of this series.”
On the RS website, it still says: “Ten things you didn’t know about climate change from Royal Society of New Zealand.” The names of the RS and Victoria are prominent and striking. Nobody would imagine that the presentation consisted solely of the personal ‘take’ of the two professors—the heavyweight support just cannot be missed.
Response simulates a threadbare reputation
This response simulates a threadbare reputation for both bodies which does not ring true. It’s like advertising the Prime Minister’s annual State of the Nation address and afterwards claiming he was just joking. This, too, is not good enough.
There is no doubt, and the Panel has admitted, that Professors Naish and Renwick used the protection of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Victoria University of Wellington to propound their alarmist views on climate change without providing a balanced assessment (“it was not necessary”).
The published literature sometimes declares the opposite of what they stated or shows that further work on the topic is needed and all of that should have been disclosed. In addition, the authors omitted vital topics that would have endorsed their credibility and provided a clear balance in areas of contention.
What may not be true is true
The Royal Society is surely aware—indeed, it must be a source of pride—of the enormous influence it has on public opinion, so it ought to acknowledge that putting professors on stage under the imprimatur of the Society, displaying professional graphics with a practised delivery, will persuade people (for such is the natural gravitas of authority) that what may not be true is true.
As we said, the Panel admits that some of the professors’ material is subject to “strong disagreement” by scientists. But that means the material may turn out to be wrong. So how does the Panel reconcile the professors’ conspicuous advocacy of an alarmist view of climate change that is based on evidence that might be wrong? Is it happy with what appears to be a monstrous disconnect between the Society’s knowledge of the uncertainties and these professors’ unwarranted alarmism?
The slides and narrative are uninhibited by any sceptical viewpoint and ardently promote the alarmist climate forecasts and policy prescriptions without proviso, as though theirs were the only opinion. That advocacy is the target of the complaint, for it rests on a deliberately truncated view of the science; our complaint and its accompanying material gives evidence of this.
Bigoted constraint of sceptical views
The persistence of a bigoted constraint of sceptical views of climate change at the highest national levels of academia, government, public service, local affairs and industry is the only barrier to an open, level-headed discourse that alone, as it proves in all human affairs, can show the way to effective resolution of climate change problems.
We strongly urge the Panel to review its findings at its earliest convenience with a view to engaging determinedly with the complaints, reprimanding the two professors and aiming to reassure the Society’s members and the New Zealand public of the gravity of its Rules 2.1, Integrity and Professionalism, and 3.1, Honesty, for we believe that during that nationwide tour those rules were breached and they ought not to be watered down as the Report proposes.
A Report that is itself a whitewash.