Human Nature?

This is the first part of some notes prepared a while ago by ‘Tom’ on the topic of ‘The Individual in communist thought’.

Human nature is not purely biological, nor an abstraction; it unfolds, develops. As we make our history, so we make ourselves.

“Human nature is not a machine to be built like a model, and set to exactly the work proscribed to it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.” J.S.Mill ‘On Liberty’

Human nature is the result of the meeting place between biology and historical processes. It is therefore capable of change.

“We cannot wait for favours from Nature, our task is to wrest them from her” Ivan Michurin, Soviet scientist

The idea to “give history a push”, cited by Christopher Hill ‘God’s Englishman’ (p 218) referring to 19th C Russian conspirator Zhelyabov.

This idea captures a dilemma of proletarian parties which led successful revolutions in backward societies. These revolutions were obviously on the side of historical development but the ‘push’ was not solely directed at proletarian revolution. There was first the not so small problem of the bourgeois revolution to complete – and in vast areas in both Russia and China – to actually get it started.

This both facilitated the opportunity for transforming the revolution from a bourgeois to a proletarian one and also frustrated and undermined it.

It is inherent in our nature to make all things new – including ourselves. (Marshall Berman, ‘The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society’, p165)

(Next instalment: ‘The development of the individual’).

Some left-wing poetry (and a little self-indulgence)

Poetry can be a powerful weapon against reactionaries. A while back I tried to recite some good left-wing poetry by Nazim Hikmet and put it on youtube:

Recital with images of Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Regarding Art”. Images include photos taken by Barry York in New York in May 2008. Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was a poet, writer and communist who spent much of his adult life in prison or in exile. Music composed and performed (with apologies to any real musicians out there) by Barry York.

Excerpt from poem “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet (1948) recited by Barry York.

I also attempted some of my own – please excuse my self-indulgence!

This poem, inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, is an attack on the reactionary and conservative nature of pseudo-leftism. Footage used was filmed in New York by the writer – from a hotel room window on W42nd Street and elsewhere in May 2008.

The Future is Bright but the Road is Hard is a poem by Barry York. It reflects an optimistic view of the future, based on the writer’s appreciation of history and the revolutions that pushed it forward.

Alarmism is the problem, not science

Alarmism: the excessive or exaggerated alarm about a real or imagined threat.

* * *

Australia’s Chief Scientist says we’ve got five years to save the world from disastrous global warming. Who can argue with a Chief Scientist? Well, given that the Chief Scientist made that claim nearly five years ago, and there has not been disastrous warming but on the contrary no significant temperature increase for around 16 years, I’d say the answer is anyone who can read and think!

The then Chief Scientist, Prof Penny Sackett, made the remark in December 2009.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report says that the mean temperature of the planet has increased by 0.8 of a degree since the late nineteenth century. Therefore, the climate is warming. Moderately.

What then is with the continuation of exaggerated and alarmist claims and predictions? Why does the mainstream media generally give them so much publicity? (Rhetorical question, I know: the sensational headline sells papers and attracts viewers).

The IPCC’s most recent report accepts that there has been a pause or hiatus but does not see this as indicative of a reversal of the warming trend long-term.

The way to explain the pause is to allow scientific debate and argument, free of vilification. It may be that the increase of CO2 emissions to record levels and the lack of significant increase in warming do indeed point to a flaw in the original hypothesis that sees greenhouse gases caused by human industrial activity as the main driver of the warming since the 1880s. Or maybe not.

Perhaps there is something to be said for the new hypothesis that the heat is being absorbed by the oceans. This is plausible and testable; though according to a recent NASA study based on satellite observation and direct temperature measurement of the upper ocean (the deep ocean is difficult to measure, say the scientist authors): “The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is – not much”.

* * *

Al Gore’s sci-fi ‘documentary’ ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was screened in just about every primary school, high school and town hall in Australia – and in many other countries too. Counterpoints were rarely, if ever, offered. But his iconic portrayal of huge tidal waves swamping Manhattan was utterly unscientific, mere alarmism. They find no basis in the IPCC assessments, which put sea level rises at 0.26-0.55 meters (10-22 inches) by 2100 under a low emissions scenario and 0.52-0.98 meters (20-39 inches) under a high emissions scenario. Is this really headline grabbing and catastrophic? Why can’t policies of adaptation be effective and the most practicable response?

The former Chief Scientist should feel embarrassed at what she said nearly five years ago.

Having said that, fossil fuels really are so C19th and C20th. But that still makes them more up-to-date than medieval windmills.

* * *

The left looks to the future. That’s what attracted me to it more than 40 years ago. You know, stuff like flying cars and holidays on the moon. Karl Marx meets the Jetsons. No, I mean it!

The problem is that pure research hardly happens any more because the needs of capital come first. There’s no profit in mucking around with ideas and experiments with no short- or medium-term marketable objective.

Change this system to one in which social need, fun and fantasy are the raison d’etre and who knows what humans will come up with?

* * * *

Capitalism Bad for Economic Growth

Government funding of research, development, demonstration and initial deployment (RDD&D) needs to increase dramatically. We need real breakthroughs in a raft of areas. Energy, agriculture, medicine and new materials come immediately to mind.

The following post is from David McMullen* :

* * * *

The slowness of technological progress is an issue that a genuine left can grab and run with. This interview with Peter Thiel co-founder of PayPal in the MIT Technology Review entitled ‘Technology Stalled in 1970’ highlights some of capitalism’s failures in this regard. He believes that technological progress has been stagnant for decades, that we need technologies that take us to the next level. We need flying cars not just Twitter or Facebook.

He says that large successful companies benefit from things not changing:

“You have to think of companies like Microsoft or Oracle or Hewlett-Packard as fundamentally bets against technology. They keep throwing off profits as long as nothing changes. Microsoft was a technology company in the ’80s and ’90s; in this decade you invest because you’re betting on the world not changing. Pharma companies are bets against innovation because they’re mostly just figuring out ways to extend the lifetime of patents and block small companies. All these companies that start as technological companies become antitechnological in character. Whether the world changes or not might vary from company to company, but if it turns out that these antitechnology companies are going to be good investments, that’s quite bad for our society.”

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute in this article point to the overwhelming role that government has played when it comes to developing general purpose breakthrough technologies.

Examples include computers, the Internet, jet engines, satellite communications, fracking technology, nuclear power and gas turbines. Indeed, all the important feature of the Apple iPhone were the result of Department of Defense funded research. They also make the point that 80 per cent of economic growth comes from innovation.

They say that capitalists generally do research and development on the less important stuff:

“Firms still spend a lot on research and development in the aggregate, but it is mostly spent on incremental product or process innovations, not long-term research to develop new disruptive technologies with the potential to radically transform existing markets and create entirely new ones.”

Government funding of research, development, demonstration and initial deployment (RDD&D) needs to increase dramatically. We need real breakthroughs in a raft of areas. Energy, agriculture, medicine and new materials come immediately to mind.

Hammering this point should allow us to hit out at both the free-market utopian-capitalists who think that the market can deliver everything and the pseudo left who simply hate technology.

We can also point out how this extremely critical aspect of economic development and human progress is often undertaken wastefully in the current social order. There is always gaming and corruption among researchers as they scramble to get their slice of the funding cake and further their careers. Such important activity would be better performed in a society where people are sufficiently at one with the world to simply do the right thing.

* David’s blog is The Economics of Social Ownership.

Marx, Murdoch and freedom of the press

“Censorship should be resisted in all its insidious forms. We should be vigilant of the gradual erosion of our freedom to know, to be informed, and make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy” – from ‘Smash fascism!’ leaflet, published by the Red Left group, Melbourne, 1970.

If you didn’t blink at the above quote, from the ‘Red Left’ group in 1970, then that’s because the sentiment expressed is precisely what you would expect from a ‘Red Left’ group in 1970. It is what those of us on the left actually believed back then. The quote, however, is not from a leaflet: the ‘Red Left’ group is fictitious. The words are those of Lachlan Murdoch in his 2014 ‘Keith Murdoch Oration’ in Melbourne.

Censoriousness is yet another indicator of the move to the Right in Australia’s political culture. In common with the C19th Prussian ruling class, who wanted to ban publication of anything offensive to religion or morality, in Australia the Labor Party, the Coalition and the Greens have been all for allowing the C21st bourgeois state to decide what is offensive in a publication and what isn’t. And, like the Prussian state, they supported a body to ensure that only ‘proper’ and ‘accurate’ content is published. In Australia, the previous government – with delightful Orwellian sensibility – called this the ‘Public Media Interest Advocate’ (PMIA). After all, the masses – you know, the “motive force of history” – cannot be trusted. Ah, what would they know?! Fortunately, the PMIA was defeated.

When individuals and groups self-identifying as ‘left-wing’ support censoriousness, the notion of a pseudo-left comes into play. Opposition to press freedom has nothing in common with Marxism or a Marxist-influenced Left.

* * *

Fighting censorship

I first intentionally broke the law as a left-wing political activist in the late 1960s, when I was a student at high school. Armed with a bundle of copies of a banned pamphlet, which from memory was called either ‘US War Crimes in Vietnam’ or ‘North Vietnam: an eye-witness account’, I distributed the banned material to those among my fellow students whom I knew, or felt, were thinkers.

The pamphlet had been banned under the Obscene Publications Act (from memory) and I was worried about being caught and facing the embarrassment of arrest for distribution of ‘obscene literature’. To young blokes in their mid-teens, ‘obscene literature’ was something other than images of napalmed women and children.

I wasn’t caught, or punished, but the school principal spoke in generality at the next assembly about the importance of the law and the consequences of breaking it, even in situations where it may seem unjust. I wasn’t – and have never been – an anarchist, so I accepted the need for the law but also felt it was right to break it in this particular circumstance.

A couple of years later at university, I – and other young communists – expected, and DEMANDED, the right to freely distribute the pamphlets, leaflets, and off-set-printed newspapers that we were publishing at frenetic pace.

Within a short period of time, I came to identify with the Maoist rebels in Melbourne, and happily embraced that label. The main thing that appealed to me was the fact that Mao had declared “It is right to rebel!” at a time when Australia’s political leaders were either doing their best to crush dissent or contain it by telling us radicals to ‘use the proper channels for change’. During the Cultural Revolution in China, in the early period, hundreds of new newspapers were being published and expressing divergent and often antagonistic views. ‘Big character posters’ were pasted on walls, criticizing corrupt party officials and exposing bureaucrats who were holding things back.

Freedom to express one’s views means freedom to speak them, and also freedom to publish them. In the flair of our own youth ‘cultural revolution’ back then, I loved the slogans coming out of Paris in 1968. ‘Sous les paves, la plage’ (beneath the paving stones, the beach) is on the masthead of this blog, but I also relished others, including ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’ (It is forbidden to forbid).

Struggle against censorship was a big issue in Australia in the 1960s and the left played an important part in opposing it.

* * *

‘Comrade’ Lachlan Murdoch – “Every citizen a journalist!”

In his oration, Lachlan Murdoch makes some important points. For instance, he understands how the new technologies have a liberating potential in the sense that everyone can be a publisher or a reporter:

“Journalists today file electronically, not just by email but through streaming live images through Skype or Facetime. Pictures taken seconds before can be seen in newsrooms half the world away. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Instagram, even Snapchat are used to amplify a story to devastating effect. These are tools available not only to journalists but to everyone with a mobile phone. Every journalist has these tools, yes, but also every soldier, every citizen, every teenager, taxi driver, mum, dad, troll, and yes, terrorist”.

“Every citizen a journalist!” – Sounds like something Mao might have said.

Murdoch jr also takes a very good line on the recent Australian security anti-terror proposals. He says: “Our current government is introducing legislation that includes jailing journalists for up to 10 years if they disclose information that relates to a “special intelligence operation.” This proscription lasts in perpetuity. Forever. Long after an operation is complete. And breaching it has no defined defences, despite such defences being well understood under Australian law”.

He provides important facts about the extent of the new “era of human communication” in which we all live:

“Of the 5 billion mobile phones in use today, 1.8 billion are smart phones, capable of publishing and receiving media. Currently smartphone sales are running at about 400 million units per quarter… Over 2 billion pieces of user-generated content are created every day. There are 277,000 tweets every minute. Ten per cent of the world’s images were recorded in the last six months. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s digital data has been created in the last two years”.

It must be increasingly difficult being a dictator, trying to control a population. In the old days, they could send in goons to seize printing-presses. But today?

Lachlan Murdoch also points out that “the creation of the internet has not, in itself, made the world a better place. It cannot force any of us to be better human beings. But, through the knowledge it facilitates, the internet can help us to choose to be better. Choice is the nature of freedom. And knowledge is at the very root of free choice. It is also at the very core of our democracy”.

And through that knowledge and that choice, people like myself see the likelihood of a better future, one in which the big media empires will be redundant and ‘melt into air’.

* * *

Karl Marx: the free press as the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul

Karl Marx’s first political activism was prompted by the issue of press censorship by the Prussian ruling class. He was a journalist from the 1840s to the 1860s and, as a supporter of the bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe, he wrote eloquently about the need for freedom of the press. Marx had been editor of ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ and ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’, as well as European correspondent for the ‘New York Tribune’. He wrote nearly 500 articles for the latter.

The context for Marx’s campaign against press censorship was the decision taken by the Prussian cabinet in 1841 to extend the scope of the censorship law by decree. Under the decree, the state could censor anything critical of the “fundamental principles of religion and offensive to morality and good will”. It was long ago but, gee, there is resonance there with attacks on press freedom in the C21st, including in Australia. The term “offensive” certainly leaps out. And Marx responded as any good leftist should: “The censorship law”, he stated, “is not a law, it is a police measure”. And, moreover, “The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom”.

In 1843, Marx himself was censored when he wrote an article exposing the poverty among wine-farmers in the Mosel region. The ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ was banned and Marx was threatened with arrest. So, he did what any good revolutionary would do: he quickly married his fiance and fled to Paris.

For Marx, there could be no progress without freedom of the press. Comparing it to a beautiful woman, he declared that it “has its beauty… which one must have loved to be able to defend”. Censorship to Marx was an “illogical paradox” as the Prussian rulers and their ideologues argued that it was necessary in order to improve the quality of the press. Again, this has remarkable resonance with C21st press censorship. That a free press will sometimes produce lots of nonsense and much that is repugnant is true, but as Marx pointed out: “You can’t pluck the rose without its thorns!” How strange that some people and groups claiming to be left-wing today actually seem to believe that the state – the bourgeois state, I hasten to add – should be empowered to remove the thorns for our protection, as though we – the members of society – could not decide what is, or what isn’t, a thorn for ourselves. A Marxist-influenced left opposes press censorship.

Marx spent a fair bit of time fleeing different places but finally settled in London in 1849, one year after publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote with Frederick Engels. He died in London in 1883.

Among his rich legacy of revolutionary thought and writing are these words against press censorship; perhaps among the finest ever written on the topic:

“The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.” (Censorship, Karl Marx 1842)


Postscript: There is an article at The Drum about this, which argues the Murdoch print media supports the new ‘security laws’: Murdoch’s belated stand.

No such thing as a ‘watermelon’. Why the Green world outlook is not left-wing.

Andrew Bolt and John Pilger both agree that there is something ‘red’ about being Green. Bolt claims that the Greens include those who are really red – hence the ‘watermelon’ metaphor – while Pilger sees them as being on the side of progress and the left. Both are wrong and in this article, which I originally wrote for ‘On-Line Opinion’ in 2008, I explain why.

* * * *

In the political discourse around green issues, the world outlook associated with various green groups is portrayed as left wing. This is largely because the green world outlook generally opposes capitalism, its leaders frequently use the rhetoric of the Left, are promoted as being left wing by the mainstream media, and usually identify themselves as being of the Left.

Moreover, many green leaders and activists were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and have genuinely left wing backgrounds. They see the green movement as a continuation of their previous left wing radicalism.

The measure of whether an outlook is on the Left needs to be assessed against criteria based on core values that have given meaning to the concept historically. Left wing traditions have never been green and, I would argue, the identification of the green outlook with left wing politics has only been possible over the past few decades because of the decline of the Left.

Contrary to what right wing commentators declare, the green movement is not the Left in new form but a product of its absence as a significant force in contemporary politics. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Green ideology has filled the vacuum created when the Left went into hibernation in the mid 1970s, after a spectacular rise during the second half of the previous decade.

What then are the core values that determine a left wing outlook, and what are the traditions of the Left in regard to nature and the non-synthetic environment?

The values of the Left are based on two interconnected qualities: opposition to oppression and tyranny (i.e., support for democracy and freedom); and enthusiastic support for material progress, for a world of (as we used to say in the communist party) “abundance for all”. These values have defined the Left since 1848, when Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto.

Marx, and the genuine Marxists, wanted to overthrow capitalism, not because it was supposedly bad for the natural environment, but because the key contradiction within it – between the social nature of production on one hand and private appropriation on the other – stood in the way of personal freedom for the workers and a real unleashing of the productive capacities of human beings.

Marx believed that wage slavery was based on exploitation and alienation, and that the workers should rise up and seize the means of production for their own ends rather than for the profit of the small group of owners. In a sense, Marx was a real supporter of “free enterprise”: but for the producers rather than the owners. There is nothing green at all in a Marxist position.

Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels, compiled the booklet ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ precisely to defeat the influence of the “greenies” (i.e. utopians) of his time. Marx and Engels established a left wing tradition that fully embraced – indeed waxed lyrical about – modernity and the achievements of industrial capitalism.

Their opposition to capitalism, I repeat, was based on an analysis that saw it as retarding social and material progress. Their views on the relationship between progress and nature were consistent with the “Age of Reason” and the scientific revolution: nature, to the Left, has never been something with which to seek harmony and balance – let alone with which to live “sustainably”.

The classical Marxist view was expressed at the left wing lastsuperpower website in the following way:

The whole history of humanity is that we are a species that does not adapt its lifestyle to its environment but develops “unsustainably” in ways that require transforming our environment, our technological forces of production and our social relations of production. Our unsustainable development has already terraformed most of this planet so that it is no longer a “wilderness”, substituted “synthetic” for “natural” products for everything we live on (including ancient things like domesticated wheat and other food staples) and will go much further both intensively here and extensively across the universe and at the same time it has totally transformed the way we relate to each other and will continue to do so.

Throughout our history there have been progressives wanting to speed up the movement forward and reactionaries demanding that we should live within our means. These ideologies are closely connected with the fact that ruling classes fear the instability and threat to their domination that goes with changes undermining our old mode of life while oppressed classes always want more from life than what their exploiters think they should live on.

* * * *

According to Engels, the struggle for human liberation required the overcoming of the limitations placed on people by the natural environment. Science, technology, and politics were ways by which humans constantly created something new, rendering the old “unsustainable”.

It’s hard to imagine a more reactionary and conservative notion than “sustainability”, but it has permeated the psyche of the populations of the advanced industrial nations and has become a mantra. It is a buzzword, basically meaning let’s not take risks, let’s get cosy with nature rather than continue to transform it for our own benefit; as we have done since the harnessing of fire.

The green outlook’s opposition to capitalism does not qualify it as being on the Left because its opposition is to the industrial and social advances ushered in by capitalism. The greens look backwards to small-scale production, to a social system based on village/community life, to a society in which humans were more in touch with nature. This type of society has existed, prior to capitalism, during the feudal era. However, capitalism, as Marx enthusiastically asserted:

… has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kin. ( See: Karl Marx, Chapter 1, Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Support for turning back the clock to small-scale production based on village/community life found expression in Australia in the 1940s, with the publication of B. A. Santamaria’s ‘The Earth, Our Mother’. Santamaria was on the far right of politics and never renounced his support for Mussolini and the Italian fascists. It made sense that someone on the right would support such a backward social system, and bemoan the liberating consequences and direction of modernity because this was the tradition of the right.

Leftists are the ones who want to “overcome nature” rather than be submissive before it. We are the ones who want to reach for the stars!

To understand just how completely opposite to the left wing position Santamaria’s view was, and how completely opposite to the left wing view the green world outlook is today, one can consider Engels, writing in ‘Anti-Duhring’ (1877). Engels speculates about the radical consequences of man finally confronting the material conditions of existence, and understands humanity’s mastery of nature as the key to its social liberation: the leap from the “kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”.

… for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Not surprisingly, there are left wingers around the world who speak out against the green outlook. Their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media but their critiques can be read at sites such as Spiked Online, and Strange Times (which archives of the old LastSuperpower site). Both are basically Marxist when it comes to the green issue. The UK-based editors of Spiked Online previously ran the journal ‘Living Marxism’. There are also occasional anti-green Marxist-influenced books, such as Austin Williams’ ‘Enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability’ and David McMullen’s ‘Bright future’, but these receive minimal publicity in the mainstream compared to the voices of doom and gloom.

* * * *


OK, so there’s no left wing green tradition, and the greens are antithetical to left wing values. Who then are these green ideologues who are described as, and claim to be, left wingers?

To me, a new concept is needed to understand their politics and that concept is “pseudo-left”. The concept has been around for a few years now and has been used by public intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen. In Australia it was promoted at strangetimes/lastsuperpower. It is time for the “pseudo-left” descriptor to be taken up by many more people, so that the green outlook can be situated where it rightly belongs.


What exactly do the 98% of climate researchers believe?

Our political culture has moved so far to the Right that the term ‘sceptic’ now has a negative connotation and argument by ‘appeal to authority’ wins the day, even when dodgy.

De omnibus dubitandum – Question everything!

“If 98% of doctors said you needed urgent surgery, wouldn’t you have it?!” “If 98% of aeronautical engineers told you that your next flight is unsafe and likely to crash, would you listen to them or to the 2% who say otherwise?” John Kerry, US Secretary of State, claimed in May this year that the consequences of climate change could be “crippling” and that “97% of the world’s scientists tell us this is urgent”. Last year, a tweet in President Barack Obama’s name asserted that “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: climate change is real, man-made and dangerous.” Note: “dangerous”. Obama cited a study of climate science consensus led by University of Queensland academic, John Cook. (About which, more later).

I have heard these analogies and claims repeated in various forms by politicians and ‘climate activists’ through the media for a few years now. They certainly have a great run in the mainstream but they rarely cite a source for the 97%-98% figure. So, I decided to do a bit of investigating for myself.

Surveys of what the climate experts’ think take two methodological approaches: reviews of peer-reviewed literature and polls. Doran, Kendall and Zimmerman polled 10,257 Earth scientists in 2009 while Anderegg, Prall, Harold and Schneider reviewed 1,372 abstracts and citation data in the climate change/global warming field in 2010. Last year, John Cook et al examined nearly 12,000 abstracts from the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Doran et al (2009)

Doran is interesting because it used a polling methodology and a seemingly big sample of more than 10,000 Earth scientists. However, on closer inspection, they point out that only 3,146 of the scientists responded. Still, that’s not a bad figure. But the 98% figure is derived not from those 3,000-plus but from those deemed to have special expertise in climate change, that is, those who had published at least 50% of their peer-reviewed papers in that area. The actual numerical basis for the 98% figure on this occasion is from 77 out of 79 in the study. Seventy-nine agreed with the proposition that global mean temperature has risen since the late nineteenth century and 77 agreed that human activity is a significant factor. The Doran study is called ‘Examining the scientific consensus on climate change’ published in the American Geophysical Union journal. Doran et al (2009) So, when John Kerry refers to “the world’s scientists”, one can only hope he has some other evidence in mind.

Anderegg et al (2010)

The Anderegg survey in 2010 was published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences. Anderegg et al reviewed abstracts and citation data of 1,372 climate researchers (they use the term ‘researchers’, though presumably most are scientists) and drew conclusions from 908 of them. Leaving aside that publication does not necessarily equate to expertise, Anderegg et al measured the climate researchers’ positions regarding the same two basic questions: Has the planet warmed and has human activity been a significant factor? They found that 97% to 98% of the 908 Abstracts and citations agreed with both propositions. The Anderegg report is called ‘Expert credibility in climate change’. Anderegg et al (2010) 

Cook et al (2013)

The 2013 work by Cook et al received international attention. It reviewed 11,944 abstracts from peer-reviewed climate-related scientific literature and the authors concluded that 97% of those who took a position supported the consensus that warming has happened and that human activity is responsible for at least half the warming since 1950. However, 66% of the abstracts reached no conclusion or took no position on the topic and so were not included. Thus, the figure of 97% refers to 97% of those with a position: approx. 4,000 out of about 12,000 abstracts. Leaving aside for a moment the question as to how the 8,000 with ‘no opinion’ might have been better dealt with, the Cook et al review found essentially what Anderegg and Doran had found: 97% consensus. Cook et al’s study is called ‘Quantifying the consensus on anthropological global warming in the scientific literature’ in Environmental Research Letters Cook et al (2013).

Questioning and scepticism

In each case, the objective was to find out what climate experts felt about the question of whether the planet has warmed and whether human activity plays a significant part. None of the studies – and none that I know of – have sought to ascertain what the climate experts think about the likelihood of “crippling consequences”, to quote John Kerry, or the likelihood of crisis or catastrophe. Nor do the studies seek to ascertain expert opinion on whether warming may be good or bad on balance.

So, how do the words of John Kerry and other alarmists measure up against these studies of expert opinion? Do 97% to 98% of experts believe the situation is “urgent” and will have “crippling consequences”? The answer is no. There is no evidence for such a consensual view.

Politicians, climate activists and influential Hollywood celebrities are misusing the 98% figure derived from such studies to justify an alarmist point of view and to marginalise dissident scientific voices. This is especially unfair given that many or most scientist-sceptics could be part of the 98% in the terms of the studies above. Sceptics generally accept that warming has occurred over the past 130 years. Sceptics tend to be more questioning of the degree to which human activity is a contributing factor and, from my reading of them, generally place emphasis on natural variation rather than industrial activity and CO2 emissions. I do not have the necessary expertise to reach a conclusion on the science but I do know, from history, that minority voices within science are sometimes proven right.

Argument and debate are essential to the advancement of knowledge

A culture of debate is as essential to scientific progress as it is to democracy. Yet our political culture has moved so far to the Right that the term ‘sceptic’ now has a negative connotation and argument by ‘appeal to authority’ wins the day, even when dodgy. And if you stand up for those scientists and experts who are sceptics, as I do, for their right to argue a case without being vilified, then look out for that big “98%” stick! Argument and debate are essential to advancement of knowledge

The findings of Cook et al, referred to above, the one which received international publicity last year, were subjected to critical scrutiny by David Legatesformer Director of the Center for Climatic Research at Delaware University. The challenge by Legates et al drew attention to an obvious problem with the way in which the 97% figure was arrived at. Cook et al adopted seven levels of ratings to categorize their findings.

Category 1 is for research that “Explicitly states that humans are the primary cause of global warming”. Clear enough.

Category 2 is for “Explicit endorsement without quantification” (i.e., does not express a view as to how significant human activity is).

Category 3 is “Implicit endorsement”.

The final four categories are: “No opinion or uncertain”, “Implicit rejection”, “Explicit rejection without quantification”, “Explicit rejection with quantification”.

Using Cook’s own figures, only 64 papers fitted Category 1. That’s 64 out of 11,944 – or, out of 4,000, if we are to agree with Cook that those expressing ‘no opinion’ should not be included in the count. That means, only 1.6% of abstracts explicitly expressed the view that humans are the cause of global warming. A far cry from 97%. Cook et al arrived at the 97% figure by lumping categories 1 to 3 together, when only category 1 explicitly represented the view that human activity was the main cause of warming.

Cook and colleague Bedford claimed in a more recent paper titled ‘Agnotology, scientific consensus and the teaching and learning of climate change’ (2013) that “Of the 4,014 abstracts that expressed a position on the issue of human-induced climate change, Cook et al. (2013) found that over 97% endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause”. The “main cause”? How could John Cook say that, when his own data shows something very different?

An article by John Cook in ‘The Conversation’ is titled “It’s true: 97% of research papers say climate change is happening”. Well, big deal. The fact of climate change is hardly controversial and very few sceptics challenge it. The increase over 130 years is less than a degree and the past 16 years show a pause, so it is hard to argue that the warming is accelerating.

Advice to Obama and John Kerry

Were Obama and Kerry and others to refer to the 98% in their public speeches in a more accurate and honest way, they would have to say something like:

“About 98% of experts accept that the planet has warmed by less than a degree over the past 130 years and that human industrial activity has played a significant part in this. However, there is no consensus as to the main cause”.

Somehow it just doesn’t have the same pull as “dangerous”, or the supposed need for ‘urgent personal surgery’, ‘airplanes crashing’ or “crippling consequences”.

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In my next post on this topic, I’d like to offer for discussion some ideas on what a left-wing response to all this should be. Alarmism needs to be repudiated but what should be advocated and demanded? 

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