SBHS, Science, certainty, climate change

No doubt about it: Sydney Boys High has produced some very distinguished people, and even more less distinguished, myself being one of that majority. Looking at that list I find I actually taught, or knew from my teaching days there, ten of them, all more distinguished than I am.

In my first three years as a student there I leaned, as I had through primary school, towards Science, until the realities of Senior Chemistry and poor mathematical skills hit me, but I have always maintained an interest. Right now, for example, I am reading Chris Stringer’s totally fascinating Homo Britannicus (2006). There’s a review here.

…On, next, to evidence from a rich Neanderthal site in Norfolk of renewed habitation in that part of Britain a mere 60,000 years ago. To speak again in thousands of years before the present: the Neanderthals perhaps managed to cling on until 30 – often keeping warm, it seems, by burning bones for fuel – but then they disappeared for ever. As a peak of climatic severity gradually approached, the tall and modern-looking Cro-Magnons began to move in, the people known best today for their cave art in France. Homo sapiens they may have been, but at 25 the British weather defeated them, and not until 15 did they return. Their cave art at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire and their suspected “nutritional cannibalism” in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge are memorials to their time here, which lasted until a final purge by ice at 13. Only from the time of their last return, about 11,500 years ago, has life in Britain been reasonably continuous, with a climate kind enough to support, in the course of time, farming and urbanization.

So much for the bare bones of the story. Anthropologists are not afraid to stretch their canvas back to such remote periods, although few calling themselves archaeologists do so, and even fewer who think of themselves as historians, with the consequence that our gestalt view of the past is highly blinkered. Broaden your canvas to picture ice north of the Thames a mile thick, and all the fine detail of later world history suddenly seems less important. Stringer gathers the views of climatologists as to what is in store for us. Though they cannot agree on whether there will be a “super-interglacial”, warmer than anything for the past 50 million years, or a freezing over of the North Atlantic and the continents flanking it, this is small comfort, since they do appear to agree that change, when it comes, may be rapid, sweeping away communities in less than a human lifespan. Politicians should read the relevant chapter of Homo Britannicus carefully, for it will cut more ice than all that windmill nonsense…

Back to SBHS. Here is the distinguished scientists list:

  • Ronald N. Bracewell — Lewis M. Terman Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus of the Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience Laboratory at Stanford University
  • Graeme Milbourne Clark AC AO — pioneer of the multiple-channel cochlear implant; founder of the Bionic Ear Institute; Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Professor John Cornforth — Nobel Laureate for Chemistry (1975)
  • Lord Robert May of Oxford — former President of the Royal Society, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government (1995-2000)
  • Sir Grafton Elliot Smith — anatomist

To that I think we should add Andrew Goodwin (1996), or will do so in the near future.

Lord May you have met here before. There is an article about him in the latest New Scientist blog.

…Should scientists have a special voice when it comes to deciding government policy?

Last night Robert May, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, set out his views. The answer? No.

Lord May

May, a former president of the Royal Society, reckons that the job of scientists is to lay out the scientific facts and – importantly – the uncertainties. After that, it’s up to the public to decide what to do about them.

Scientists can and should make their opinions clear – but only as citizens. Being a scientist doesn’t give you the right to lord it over the rest of the population…

…here’s the uncertainty principle: scientists mustn’t give in to the pressure to deal in certainties.

“So many of the problems we have to worry about have substantial uncertainties associated with them,” May said. “Science is a useful way of asking the right questions, but it doesn’t always have the right answers.”

That’s why scientists have to frame the debate with their results – all of them – then step back.

It’s worth taking May seriously because he has a pedigree in this. He managed the UK’s approach to using stem cells, and encouraged the scientists involved to simply lay out the facts and let the politicians do their job, rather than lobby for a particular outcome…

By contrast Lord Monckton, recently in Australia as an apostle of climate change scepticism, is a man of no mean certainty, as befits someone whose scientific credentials are very similar to my own — except that I would rather take note of the spirit of a real scientist, such as Lord May, and accept that when people like him express a 90% degree of certainty on the subject of climate change they do not do so lightly.

Here’s a rare beast indeed: a politician who in fact was also a scientist:

…Mr President, the environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out.

We should work through this great organisation and its agencies to secure world-wide agreements on ways to cope with the effects of climate change, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, and the loss of precious species.

We need a realistic programme of action and an equally realistic timetable.

Each country has to contribute, and those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.

The work ahead will be long and exacting. We should embark on it hopeful of success, not fearful of failure.

I began with Charles Darwin and his work on the theory of evolution and the origin of species. Darwin’s voyages were among the high-points of scientific discovery.

They were undertaken at a time when men and women felt growing confidence that we could not only understand the natural world but we could master it, too.

Today, we have learned rather more humility and respect for the balance of nature.

But another of the beliefs of Darwin’s era should help to see us through—the belief in reason and the scientific method. Reason is humanity’s special gift. It allows us to understand the structure of the nucleus. It enables us to explore the heavens. It helps us to conquer disease. Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature.

At the end of a book which has helped many young people to shape their own sense of stewardship for our planet, its American author quotes one of our greatest English poems, Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

When Adam in that poem asks about the movements of the heavens, Raphael the Archangel refuses to answer. “Let it speak”, he says,

“The Maker’s high magnificence, who built
So spacious, and his line stretcht out so far,
That Man may know he dwells not in his own; An edifice too large for him to fill,
Lodg’d in a small partition, and the rest
Ordain’d for uses to his Lord best known.”

We need our reason to teach us today that we are not, that we must not try to be, the lords of all we survey.

We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself—preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder. May we all be equal to that task.

Thank you Mr President.

Didn’t like her social philosophy much, but three cheers to Margaret Thatcher for those prescient words from 9 November 1989: “Speech to United Nations General Assembly (Global Environment)”.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “SBHS, Science, certainty, climate change

  1. A most interesting post. It’s very important, to put Monckton into perspective, as you’ve done. It’s quite outreagous that he was given any credibility here at all. I think this is a consequence of the journalistic obsession with reducing most serious discussion around global warming to something akin to a sporting competition. Monckton is a wooden spooner playing the competition leader.

Comments are closed.