"The climate, the impostor and the sophist"

Alternatives économiques, 12/03/2010.
Article reprinted with the permission of Alternatives économiques
>> Read the article on Alternatives économiques website [french version]

Olivier Godard, director of research at CNRS, a development and environment economist, responds to the "sophists" and "impostors", from Claude Allègre to François Ewald, who claim a scientific basis for their arguments against IPCC reports on climate disturbance.

While already a bestseller, the latest book by Claude Allègre denouncing a climate myth and fraud has received some negative press. On 25th February, Anne Bauer, a journalist for Les Échos, gave the book an honest and straight review: through its dishonesty and over simplification, the book was akin to a propaganda pamphlet and not the writings of a man of science. Although in truth she could have been even more acerbic about this work of fiction that describes the alleged seizing of power by a small group of men, an exploit for which the only precedent would be that of the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Russian Revolution… On the following day, Stéphane Foucart, a journalist for Le Monde, highlighted the "one hundred errors of Claude Allègre”. He commented that the book is riddled with errors and fabrications, including: references to authors or articles that do not exist, opinions of TV weather presenters in the U.S. that have been assimilated with those of climate scientists, scientists that have been arbitrarily enrolled to support points of views that they do not defend, etc.

It is within this context that on 2nd March, Les Échos published a "vindication of Claude Allègre" by François Ewald, the former assistant to Michel Foucault who became the intellectual of the French Federation of Insurance Companies and after that a professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM). Ewald attacked journalists, accusing them of demonstrating intolerance and yielding to their militant convictions. He made his arguments with gravitas, claiming to do so on behalf of scientific ethics: focusing on the former minister’s errors was merely a way of dodging his central thesis. Ewald considers a national debate to be imperative on the circumstances of the transformation of a "dubious hypothesis" (sic) (that of current and future climate warming) into "dogma" (sic). He considers Allègre to be a new Michel Foucault, deconstructing the climate change myth that was borne from the adulterous love affair between science and power! Poor Foucault!

How far will our sophist go to defend the indefensible? The ethics of science starts with a respect for the rules of the scientific method: the importance of demonstration and proof, the precision of references, the publication of work in scientific journals, all of which test claims or hypotheses before they are sanctioned as knowledge that is worthy of being communicated to the public. Allègre is reproached not for the fact that he has ideas and opinions, as eccentric and confused as they are, but because he usurps the authority of science without respecting any of its rules. Allègre even claims that this stance against and outside the established scientific community provides intrinsic and ultimate proof that he is right: surely all geniuses have upset the preconceptions and routines of their era, haven’t they?

Similarly to Allègre, Ewald criticizes the mathematical models used by climatologists. He considers them as a fragile basis. He omits to mention that climate models are not blindly formulated, purely statistical constructions but are in fact based upon an utterly incontrovertible physical theory: a unique system of equations enables the simulation of seasons and of different regional climates, and also allows the replication of climatic trends observed since the nineteenth century but only by taking into account the effect of atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases. Forget about the sun’s behaviour and magnetism! As yet no modeling team has been able to build a climate model that is compatible with physical laws and observational data and that does not lead to a global warming of the planet. Even though a Nobel Prize would be immediately awarded to anyone who could create such a model. With all this in mind, how can Ewald seriously talk of a dubious hypothesis?

As for the theory that grant-hungry scientists have devised a conspiracy, this is not at all a new conjecture. Yves Lenoir wrote about this theory in very similar terms in his book published in 1992 evocatively titled: The truth about the greenhouse effect. A study of global manipulation. He was already using rhetorical devices that were revealed in their time for what they were (1). In the same year, on the related problem of stratospheric ozone, there was also Ozone. A hole for nothing. This genre has continued to thrive since then.

It is disturbing to see the level of success of such climate skeptic nonsense among the public and sections of the media, who are frantic at the opportunity to relegate a cause that, not so long ago, they had raised to the level of one of the highest. It is sad to see certain intellectuals, writers, pundits and armchair philosophers, who know no more about climate science than they do about science in general, rally around the fraudsters or clowns in whom they see the very best of an innovative science that dares to courageously overthrow the current doctrine. From the height of their incompetence, they believe that the thousands of scientists involved in serious work are merely ideologues or incompetent - except in the art of manipulation -, and that these media savvy impostors are actually experts that are finally telling the truth about the emperor’s new clothes...

There is a significant feature of the rhetoric of Ewald the sophist, in common with all those, such as creationists or Holocaust deniers, who want to gain accreditation for a thesis that science does not acknowledge, which is: the necessity to initiate a public debate so that everyone can form their own opinion. With democracy as the pretext, they attempt to gain acceptance for an element of truth in their allegations, claims that were not able to stand up to scientific analysis. As Susan Woodbury, the then president of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, wrote in April 2006 when the Canadian Prime Minister Harper was facing an insistent demand from climate skeptics to organize a national debate allowing the confrontation of different "theories": "We support the idea of a program of public information on climate change. However, we do not believe that public consultation is a credible way to assess the science of climate change.” Woodbury referred to work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the best available synthesis of worldwide knowledge on the subject. To allow the scientific nature of various statements to be judged by public debate means transposing a political procedure into the realm of scientific knowledge, which is contrary to the ethics of science. Was it not Raymond Aron that identified the surrender of science to politics as one of the sources of totalitarianism?

Sporting events, even though they involve very different activities to scientific research, provide an analogy worth considering: journalists, impassioned fans and even intellectuals may give their opinions on such occasions, both before and after an event, about the quality of the athletes in the competition; and there may be discussions on the radio regarding the strengths, opportunities and merits of the participants; however it is not the fact of making the event open to public debate that forms the heart of the sporting event itself. The same is true for science, with the difference that the public cannot observe firsthand the events and their results, i.e. to have at their disposal a significant level of immediate understanding. This event is closed to the public because there is no science without it having to pass through a construction, an abstraction, a generality, and there is no science without knowledge or previously acquired skills. Therefore the public is tempted to assume that neither party has won the argument outright, or to choose one "theory" over another based on a priori beliefs, which is the goal sought by detractors.

What is the role of the media in all of this? If they are not careful, they provide an invaluable podium for the fraudsters. The vector for this is the hijacking of the principle of democratic balance regarding the expression of opinions. In actual fact, it is at best the rule of impartiality (giving the same level of exposure and allotted airtime) as applied to the two "camps" involved: those for and against, creating in this way a false symmetry between right and wrong. Hence, "fairness" would command the equal treatment of opinions from “defenders” of the theory of human-induced climate change, and those of its detractors.

A terrible trap then ensnares the scientists involved who, due to their "official" standing or because of their association with the IPCC, see their independent scientific judgments challenged without debate. Acceptance of the debate amounts to an implicit and unwarranted recognition of the scientific status of allegations that the scientific community at large has not granted: the conditions of a media-orchestrated public debate do not allow, in practice, the mobilization of resources (time needed to develop an argument, mobilization of data, critical review of published scientific literature) that is necessary for scientists to be able to reject unfounded comments. Conversely, a refusal to debate gives the appearance of a closed mind, which will be interpreted as sectarian, dogmatic and contrary to the ethics of scientific discussion; scientists would then give the impression that they are admitting to having left the scientific realm of mutual criticism of concepts, methods and results, and that they acknowledge a situation of weakness, or an inability to refute the comments of detractors, or an ideological adherence to dogma.

There is no doubt that political debate is legitimate to determine climate and energy policy. On the condition that it can begin from a sound basis and not on the maintained confusion to which Allègre and Ewald contribute to as much as they can. The establishment of a shared knowledge basis at the global scale was the underlying objective of the IPCC’s creation, a task that it has accomplished remarkably well to date, despite the numerous destabilization attempts that is has experienced since its foundation in 1988. An empirical error made in the 2007 report of the IPCC’s Working Group II, regarding the date by which the Himalayan glacier would melt, is not the kind of mistake to jeopardize the scientific assessment prepared in the Group I report, or the emission scenarios and the analysis of the political instruments presented in the Group III report...

By inverting the relationship between false and true, and by riding on the waves of fashionable themes such as the deconstruction of science and public debate, the impostor and the sophist come to their true objective: to invalidate at their roots active public policies on climate that are said "as expensive as they are inefficient" by Ewald. They employ the techniques – with some aptitude - that are described well in David Michaels’ book (2) that explains the strategies for discrediting the scientific basis of health risk management in the United States. All of which is done on behalf of rescuing a very narrow type of conservatism! Without a doubt bad faith is today pervading the intellectual life and public debate in France.

Olivier Godard is the director of research at CNRS and works at the École Polytechnique. He has published numerous articles and books dedicated to health and environmental risks, the precautionary principle in international negotiations on climate and economic instruments. Among his recent publications: "L’ajustement aux frontières, pivot d’un nouveau régime international ou manœuvre protectionniste ?” in Regards croisés sur l’économie n° 6, ed. La Découverte, 2009.


(1) “Sciences et intérêts: la figure de la dénonciation. À propos d'un livre d'Yves Lenoir sur l'effet de serre”, by Olivier Godard, Natures Sciences Sociétés, vol. 1/3, July 1993, pp. 238-245.

(2) Doubt is Their Product. How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens your Health, by David Michaels, Oxford University Press, 2008. In this book, the author analyzes the strategies implemented by specialist consultants recruited by industry groups, the most well known of which were operating in the tobacco industry, to subvert information and to systematically shed doubt onto scientific results that could lead to accusations against their products.