Partial Transcript Of Richard North vs Roger Harrabin BBC Radio 5 live Exchange

On Wednesday Feb 11 BBC Radio 5 live’s “News from around the UK with Gabby Logan” programme hosted Richard North,  of “EU Referendum” fame and the BBC’s own Roger Harrabin together with renown Mike Hulme and Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology. The recording is available here for a few days still (I don’t think there is a podcast).

The result has been a series of memorable quotes that I am trying to report here, together with a summary of everything that has been said. I shall return to some of this material in the next few days, for additional comments and to ease punctuation and capitalization…

(quick commentary: Richard North is the winner by far, and finds Harrabin move to his side too. Stephen Curry sounds like out of step with what is happening)

NOTE: direct quotes are in italic. Please do feel free to correct any mistake in the transcription:

GL: Gabby Logan (host)
MH: Mike Hume
RH: Roger Harrabin
RN: Richard North (introduced by GL as “political analyst and climate change skeptic“)
SC: Stephen Curry

ADDENDUM: the whole programme is now available via Vimeo (thanks to Climategate2009 for the link)

GL: [The inquiry will be about] how messages from the university of east anglia found their way to the internet. “Mike – are you pleased…What are you hoping it will achieve?

MH: independent investigation is appropriate about UEA but also the rest of the complex world of climate politics.

RN: “I agree with Mike there“. UEA investigation is only small bit of global issue. What worries RN is the tendency to treat this as an isolated episode but it isn’t, it is part of a continuum. climate politics complex but affects everybody.

GL: Mike – how much damage has this done to the debate about climate change?

MH: questions raised, understandably so. how enduring the damage will be, it depends on the outcome of inquiry. IPCC needs to take errors very seriously, work hard to rebuild trust in scientific evidence. not an easy thing to do, to restore trust that has been damaged.

RN: (chuckles) reminds of MH interview in 2007 saying IPCC is a political process (MH: “Absolutely, it is“). The science is not the issue, “it is the politics of science and the science of politics in a sense“. Needs to be a political inquiry.

GL: Do you think that will take scientists to an area they are totally uncomfortable with?

RN: “Anybody who’s been in academia knows that science is intensely political especially as the main push within scientific departments is funding and getting money and satisfying your paymasters. to try and pretend that somehow somehow science and politics are separate is a pastiche, it simply exists only in storybooks“.

MH: “I would agree with you Richard there“. We’ve got to find good ways to brind scientific evidence to public policy debate. Can’t simply accept science will do its business in its own sphere of influence. We need a process to bring high-quality scientific evidence with all uncertainties attached to it, to a public debate. Think IPCC is probably past its sell-by date. “Science never dictates policy but we have to have high-quality scientific evidence“.

(traffic news, BBC own ads)

GL Talking of Climategate. Can I bring Roger Harrabin. What impact do you think has this row on how climate change is being reported?

RH “Huge impact [...] science is on the front pages and many scientists are uncomfortable with that. It is extremely difficult to conduct a very nuanced debate about science, policy and climate change through soundbites of 10 seconds. I say extremely difficult, frankly it is impossible. And that what tends to happen“. The tabloid way is unsatisfactory, not debating it at all is also unsatisfactory. Suggests to start from inquiry. GL agrees. RH: “We know about the climategate affairs, with the stolen e-mails showing scientists blocking access to their data, and that is quite clear, they no longer deny that, they don’t deny that, and they also appear to show they tried to unfairly influence the debate and the way their colleagues were perceived [...] their rivals were perceived, and they do deny that. This inquiry…is said to be completely independent by the man who chairs it…will look at what exactly [the scientists] did…an enquiry about best practice in science”. Not just what is best practice now, but also what it was 20 years ago, “when a lot of the the climategate e-mails began“.

GL: RN – how did these e-mails end up in the public domain

RN: “There are some facts in the system that Roger seems to ignore. And I wish he’d stop prejudicing the debate by talking about stolen e-mails. The latest response from the local police is that they are now looking at the misuse of data. All the forensic evidence, and this has been poured (?) over by expert computer people, points to all the file being aggregated on a single server, UEA actually admitted that and there is equally a possibility, in fact a very very strong possibility that this was an inside job and a leak by somebody that was actually disaffected with what was going on. [Talking about intelligence agencies etc] this is actually prejuidicing the enquiry against the reality that it is probably an internal job. Talking about e-mails, hackers and the rest [is] distorting the debate and not helping the listener and the general public to understand [what is going on]“.

RHL Asks what better term to use rather than “stolen”. “This is another one of these things where you probably need a sentence rather than a word” (RN: “Sorry…“) RH: “This is not a helpful debate” (RN: “But you refer to them as being stolen“). RH: “This is how it gets bogged down into arguments. Please. Please. It would be a change [to have a debate where] we could get insights

RN: The point is that “you are prejudicing the debate. you are making an assumption in your terminology

GL: RH – impact clearly this is going to have on the reporting of science more broadly and how people know who to trust and where to get their information – it must be very difficult to report on science in an objective way (RN: “It is“) because both sides of the debate are so entrenched (RN: “Yes“)

RH: It is “particularly difficult“. Enquiry is looking very narrow into abuse of data. It is more interesting to “look beyond climategate and the whole of climate science because what climategate and glaciergate, that horrible mistake from the IPCC about the glaciers reveals is that I think a lot of people are ready now to examine climate change at its fundamentals and that will be very helpful. What’s been difficult for people reporting mainstream debate in the past has been that what we would call our trusted sources of science, people like the Royal Society and the various other corollary bodies in different countries, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up to be the touchstone of probity on this issue, they have been the providers of news and the people who have been doubting these news have generally speaking not been academics, I am on the trawl for academics at the moment in British universities there are hardly any and there have been doubters from other quarters and it’s been very difficult for us to tell what are the credentials when all these establishment voices are lined up on one side, how can we put them against a blogger on the other side that might happen to be a blogger who has for the past 15 years spent 100 hundred hours on the Internet reading climate science and has a good knowledge but we don’t know how to test this

GL: introduces Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology who’s been writing in the Guardian about the potential dangers when science hits the front pages. GL – “Is it important that people got faith in the country’s scientists, they can trust the evidence they are presenting?

SC: “Fundamentally important“. “Science is the best way to understand the natural world“. Scientist are trained to be skeptical, formulate hypothesis and then experiment to test them. Free to criticize each other’s work. Important to get information across to the public in a way that is digestible.

GL: Do politicians have a “proper understanding of the issues“?

SC: Many “simply don’t have the background to properly understand the scientific progress and it’s a challenge for them

GL: “Roger has alluded to the fact that the public wants to consume the news in bite-sized pieces and we want things explained very quickly to us. Are some issues like climate change just too complex for the public to understand?

SC – “They are certainly very complex but I think it’s vitally important that the public can understand and I think probably scientists can do a better job at being open and presenting all the evidence they have accumulated in support of man-made global warming. I don’t think there is any serious doubt in the community about that. There are uncertainties about what is the going to happen in the future but it is a matter then of presenting that complexity to the public. We often have to rely on journalists and other media outlets to present that case. of course they are very adept at putting stories together and of course they are pushed for space or air-time, which tends to drive a simplification. [...] those are very difficult issues and it is really a challenging thing to try to put that across. [...] scientists and journalists could work together in this a bit more for one another for their needs

RN: “You talk about trust in science but actually the default mode of the public, of the politicians aand above all of the scientists should be skepticism. We should not trust scientists, we should look at what they say and if they can’t explain themselves properly then automatically we should…(interrupted by GL)”

GL: “you are assuming a lot of knowledge there Richard for people to cross-examine” (RN: “No, no, no, not at all“) GL: “I am talking about the general public reading a newspaper are not necessarily going to cross-examine a scientist who has spent years and years of training, and years and years of research

RN: “This is precisely what’s happening and in fact ordinary people I mean this whole thing has been led by the grass-root, by bloggers and other commentators just read the comments on, say look at the newspapers online and look at the comments on them. There is far more intelligence and knowledge out there in the British public than in fact sometimes you see within the scientific community and there are internal inconsistencies in the evidence that we have been given, that ordinary people can say “look, you said this, you said that, the two don’t match, explain yourself” and instead of responding to that what you’re getting is this defensive wall saying “no, the debate is settled, the science is settled, there is no debate”. And it’s the scientific community and the political community. Don’t forget, Gordon Brown was calling us flat-earthers, which was a really healthy contribution to the debate. The fact that they have not been willing to entertain discussion and questions and perfectly genuine questions has actually poisoned the atmosphere. They’ve got to learn humility and turn around to genuine inquiries and say…. And ordinary bloggers. Look I’ve got a PhD so I am a scientist and I have pulled down three of the “Gates” but I have been looking through the IPCC report pulling out complete errors. Now, Roger Harrabin called them mistakes. That’s poisoning the debate because the lead author of Glaciergate said this was not a mistake, he’s on record saying that“.

GL – Asks Harrabin to go back to that point.

RH – Moves to language. “I think that phrases like climate deniers and flat earthers have absolutely no place in the debate whatsoever“. Says politicians and “leaders of science” have been heard stating that the debate is over, but if you talk to climate scientists themselves they will say”the balance of evidence is that human activities are changing the climate but there are still many uncertainties“: about the past climate record, the current climate record, how far the climate will change in the future. Government ministers have a much more simplistic view. “Is settled” might mean “Is settled enough for us to think about action“. “To give you an example about the difficulty of understanding all this, I was at a meeting of the Royal Society last year with eminent Professors from around the world, the sort of people that we regard as experts in climate change because they write papers in Nature and Science and I have to say there are very few skeptic papers in those journals. One of the professors asked a question the answer to which I knew, and I am a policy specialist, not a science specialist. I was a little alarmed that I knew this question which was outside his realm of his science and I just happened to pick up on. So I have asked the members of the panel at the Royal Society, would it be a good idea if there were some specialists, some professors of general scientific knowledge in terms of climate change instead of people specialising in some microcosm, tiny, tiny fragmented interest and I was savaged by the panel, they said it was a ridiculous idea and you had to be a top-top person in a very narrow field to get credibility from other scientists. On the other hand Richard has talked about, and here I fully support his view, there are some people on the blogosphere that have made themselves experts in general climate science. And we have to find some way, the IPCC or whatever replaces it has to find some way of giving credibility to their expertise, as well as to the expertise of people who have gone through the Royal Societies of various kinds. I think this whole thing has opened up a huge challenge to the way science is conducted, not just climate science but across the board.

GL- “Could this actually be a seminal moment”?

RH – Yes. And it is “part of the way we learn to cope to the internet“. Establishment behaves “in a normal way” as if the Internet “is not going to shout back at them“, and without thinking they need to deal with a broad public that was “inconceivable to them when they started their career“. “This is going to make me behave differently