RCP/LM watch

Keeping an eye on the RCP/LM and its fronts

Sense About Science

Sense About Science is one of the RCP/LM’s more successful and unassuming front organisations. Headed by the mild-mannered (at least on air) Tracey Brown, Sense About Science describes itself as “an independent charitable trust”, which does stretch the meaning of the word “independent” somewhat. SAS gets a lot of radio and TV airtime, and Press coverage, as it gives good copy [1] and publishes user-friendly guides to scientific topics that even scientifically-challenged journalists can understand. However,  according to the authoritative Sourcewatch profile of her:

“Tracey Brown and Frank Furedi have worked with both LM and Spiked and have also both worked with the Institute of Ideas, which has published a book co-authored by Brown: Compensation Crazy.”

SAS has a very impressive list of profs and docs on its trustee board and advisory council [2] which lends it legitimacy and gives the impression of independence and scientific rigour (although it is notable that long-time RCP/LM inner circle member Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is among the trustees). It’s also very well-funded from a wide range of donors [3]. Wisely, it eschews the aggressive anti-environmentalism of most other RCP/LM fronts for a more considered, softly softly approach, and consequently reaps the benefits of media respectability. A glance at the SAS website, though, shows a glaring omission: there’s nearly nothing on it about global warming, which has to rank in the top 5 of hot science topics these days. Compare this to the large Climate Change section on the website of New Scientist magazine. Why the omission? Because the RCP/LM is one of the most implacable ‘sceptics’ of climate change, as to accept that global warming is anthropogenic would necessarily conflict with the organisation’s raison d’etre, namely the promotion of unrestricted human material progress. If SAS were to pronounce on climate change it would have to repeat this hardline denial and blow its cover, as well as lose all respectability in the mainstream scientific community from which SAS draws its legitimacy. The closest SAS comes to a ‘position’ on global warming is its booklet “Making Sense of the Weather and Climate” (PDF) which has a decidedly sceptical tone, set by the contents page:

“We should distinguish between the possible effects of predicted climate change and the extreme weather that is part of the normal variability of the climate.” (emphasis in original)

On the whole, though, SAS soft-pedals climate change. It’s rather more forthright and positive about Genetically Modified crops, however. According to Sourcewatch:

“Tracey Brown is on the Stakeholder Platform of the Innogen Centre[6]– the ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics – along with a number of other GM proponents, including Dr Andrew Cockburn of Monsanto, Phil Dale of the John Innes Centre and John Hillman of the Scottish Crop Research Institute.” [4]

This fondness for GM came to public attention in February 2009 following the publication of an article in the Times Higher Education magazine [5] which accused SAS of not disclosing that some authors of its recently-published guide Making Sense of GM (PDF) have links to the GM industry and pro-GM organisations. In her rebuttal of the article, Tracey Brown claimed that it relied on “tortuously indirect links, inaccurate information and positions many years out of date”, and described the accusations as “mischievous”[6]. Unfortunately for SAS, Private Eye picked up the story, and found that an unpublished draft listed an author with very direct and current GM links:

“But the Eye has a copy of an unpublished draft of the guide – and it seems it wasn’t just the industry links of some of its authors that didn’t appear in the final version. One of the guide’s listed authors, Andrew Cockburn, is also missing. Who he? None other than GM giant Monsanto’s former director of scientific affairs […]”. [7]

Egg on face time for Tracey Brown, and a dent in SAS’s facade of scientific respectability.

SAS has a sister organisation which is also a known RCP/LM front. The Science Media Centre is headed by Fiona Fox, the sister of the redoubtable rottweiler Claire (of Moral Maze and Question Time fame) who leads the Institute of Ideas. Both the SMC and SAS go some way to remedying the RCP/LM’s long-standing scientific illiteracy, a result of its almost exclusive recruitment of bright young graduates from ‘soft’ subjects.

References

[1] The uncritical Wikipedia entry on Sense About Science references a good number of Press stories related to SAS.

[2] Sourcewatch: Sense About Science

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Charity guide criticised for not declaring GM interests. THE, 19/2/09.

[6] SAS defends GM guide. THE, 26/2/09

[7] Private Eye, No. 1232, p.26

Links

Sense About Science website

Sourcewatch: Tracey Brown profile

Science Media Centre website

Lobbywatch: Fiona Fox profile

Lobbywatch: Science Media Centre

Fiona Fox’s blog: On Science and the Media

Times Higher articles:

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March 28, 2009 - Posted by | RCP/LM, RCP/LM fronts | , , , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. “To accept that global warming is anthropogenic would necessarily conflict with the organisation’s raison d’etre, namely the promotion of unrestricted human material progress.”

    No it wouldn’t. Presumably the highly restricted material progress in the most polluted places on earth – in the developing world – are a model of the way forward? Anyway, where are these denials of anthropogenic global warming? I’ve followed the work of Furedi and Spiked et al. closely and am unaware of a single suggestion that even would imply such a denial.

    Comment by Pod | March 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. “that would even imply”, sorry.

    Comment by Pod | March 31, 2009 | Reply

  3. Pod: during the 90s RCP/LM members and supporters routinely rubbished, in the most forthright terms, any suggestion of anthropogenic global warming. As the scientific evidence has become pretty overwhelming (at least for most people) then IoI and Spiked spokespeople have been more circumspect. Clare Fox even conceded, on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, that *maybe* there’s a bit of climate change, but that’s as far as she went. This is reminiscent of the LM line on the Balkan wars of the 90s – whilst RCP/LM followers were posting robustly on Usenet declaring their “unconditional” support for Serb forces and denying any atrocities carried out by these forces (Srebrenica “never happened” according to one follower), LM magazine took the official line that atrocities happened on all sides but still routinely rubbished any reports of Serb massacres, which in the end resulted in their demise when they lost a libel suit. Similarly, you won’t get Furedi, Hume, Fox et al stating bluntly “global warming doesn’t exist”, but you will and do see and hear them rubbishing the “Culture of Fear” [TM] that climate “scare stories” engender. That the issue is still a big bee in the RCP bonnet can be seen from Brendan O’Neill’s recent OTT rant on Spiked (http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/6320/).

    The RCP’s position seems to be:

    1. There’s no global warming.
    2. If there is global warming it’s a natural phenomenon and nothing to do with human activity.
    3. If global warming is anthropogenic then the natural ingenuity of humans, if unrestricted, will overcome its effects (see Uncle Frank’s latest article)

    That the group is still ‘sceptical’, to put it mildly, about climate change is illustrated by the infamous polemic/documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle produced by their acolyte and poster boy, Martin Durkin (of Against Nature fame). A flick through the raft of articles in the Spiked Environment section makes it plain that ‘scepticism’ is still the RCP/LM’s line on climate change.

    More on this in a future post.

    Comment by rcpwatch | March 31, 2009 | Reply

  4. “During the 90s RCP/LM members and supporters routinely rubbished, in the most forthright terms, any suggestion of anthropogenic global warming.”

    Hmm, being a supporter myself during this period you’d think I’d’ve noticed, wouldn’t you? You hear what you want to hear.

    As for the muted ‘maybes’ and the general scepticism towards the ‘consensus’ on global warming, quite right too! There’s no denial of man-made contributions towards climactic change here (no-one I know connected to Spiked has much time for ‘The Great Global, Warming Swindle’ angle, despite it being caricatured as ‘LM TV’).

    The anthropogenic aspects of GW seem pretty self-evident. You don’t need to be a genius to work out that it’s very likely that human industry will have it’s impact. But, at the risk of sounding glib, so what? The point is, such problems are not insurmountable and shouldn’t be used to justify putting the brakes on material/economic progress. The human race survived an ice age, so I’m sure we’ll cope with the somewhat more advanced technology at our disposal (not that greens are all that keen to face up to that either. James Woudhuysen’s article ‘Why greens don’t want to ‘solve’ climate change’ is instructive in this regard: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/3950/)

    The stuff on the war in the former Yugoslavia is just otherwordly, baring little resemblance to the character of the opposition to the campaign against Western intervention, and the identification of it as the principal cause of upping the stakes for all sides in the conflict, regardless of which ‘brutal, self-serving nationalist’ (the term used to describe Milošević in ‘the next step’ back in the day) was leading them.

    It’s still not clear to me what you’re trying to do with all this.

    Pod

    Comment by Pod | April 2, 2009 | Reply

    • Pod, the rubbishing of climate change, and indeed anything to do with environmentalism, is there in black and white online. RCP/LM supporters, particulary Gary Dale and Justin Flude, posted prolifically to Usenet newsgroups in the 90s pushing the unvarnished party line in the most robust terms possible. There isn’t time right now to dig quotes out but that will happen for a future post. A search for “Gary Dale climate change” on http://www.deja.com will pick up a good few old threads in which GD was pretty explicit, leaving no room for interpretation of the party line.

      As for the Balkan Wars, both Dale and Flude, together with other RCP/LM reps, explicitly declared their “unconditional support” for the Serb regimes. Absolutely no room for interpretation there either. This line comes directly, and crudely, from the Leninist dictum that nations and movements under attack from imperialism should be “unconditionally, but not uncritically, supported”.

      Comment by rcpwatch | April 2, 2009 | Reply

  5. Whoops – another typo: ‘the character of the opposition to the campaign against Western intervention’ should of course read ‘baring little resemblance to the character of the campaign against Western intervention’.

    Comment by Pod | April 2, 2009 | Reply

  6. You want to dig up usenet posts (by people with what connection to the then RCP?) from the 1990s?!?

    So far as I recall in the 1990s LM was already running articles acknowledging climate change was caused by people, but that we could handle it (I think one headline was ‘Wouldn’t a bit of global warming be a good thing?’)

    But if you think that it was not more defensible to be sceptical of the basic science then than it is now then obviously you’ve not been following the climate debate too closely.

    Consider a recent Perspective article in Science magazine, on water vapour feedback:

    “In the 1990s, there was little observational or theoretical understanding of atmospheric humidity and how it varied with global climate. As a result, debate raged over whether the water vapor feedback would really occur, with some very influential proposals that it would not (1). In particular, many believed that atmospheric humidity and the water vapor feedback were controlled by processes — such as the details of cloud dynamics and microphysical processes — that are not sufficiently well understood and inadequately represented in climate models.”
    http://geotest.tamu.edu/userfiles/216/dessler09.pdf

    As the authors say, although uncertainties remain this is much more settled now. But water vapour and clouds are a very big deal as far as climate is concerned – without it warming is no biggie.

    Do you really think that the corrections to satellite and balloon temperature measurements in 2005 were unimportant? I know they did a lot to convince me, as they showed the pattern in the data lining up a lot better with the models.

    On what grounds do you think the IPCC strengthed its confidence between the 2001 and 2007 reports? (Or do you think its conclusions are just driven by politics?)

    Comment by Qubic | April 17, 2009 | Reply

  7. Gerry the Gerbil, you sad git.

    Comment by Joe Bloggs | August 6, 2009 | Reply


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