I have come across a long and most interesting report published by a Norwegian think-tank/consultancy called SINTEF, about the question of ‘consensus’ with respect to ‘climate change’. It is well worth reading, and its author, Emil Royrvik, is a well published social anthropologist.  SINTEF works closely with companies in the alternative energy domain, and Norway is one of the heartlands of environmentalism, so this publication is on the face of it unusual, at least in its provenance.

Moreover, it has a go at one of the grandmothers of the AGW scare, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister, former Director-General of the WHO, and author of the Brundtland Report, which told the world back in 1987 that we had a common future, and that it had to be a sustainable one. If not the creator of the notion of ‘sustainable development’, she was at least one of its great popularisers.   I had her book on my shelves for a long time, and consigned to Lateline only a few months ago, on the ground that I would not want to read it again. She has been the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, and in a 2007 speech asked rhetorically : ‘So what is it that is new today? What is new is that doubt has been eliminated. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear. And so is the Stern report. It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.’

Emil Royrvik spends 70 pages dismissing that claim, and showing that in fact doubt has not been eliminated at all — indeed that it is growing. He doesn’t mention the Stern Report, or our own version, the Garnaut Report, probably because both have been overtaken by events. Both seemed to exaggerate the costs of climate change now and in the future, and to minimise the cost of mitigation. Both reports have passed from contemporary discussion, and the governments that commissioned them have either passed on, in the UK case, or seem about to, in our own.

There is nothing in the SINTEF paper that I had not seen before, save examples of various kinds. But the argument is straightforward, and well supported. It comes to three conclusions. The first is that while there is extensive agreement within the peer-reviewed journal literature that global warming has occurred over the past century, there is also extensive disagreement about its size, nature and cause. The second is that disagreement in science is healthy (Royrvik doesn’t use Karl Popper’s statement that I use in the heading of this website, but he might have done).

The third is that Brundtland’s ‘normative’ statement about global warming is not healthy: ‘ the form of dogmatism expressed by Brundtland, even explicitly asserting that raising further critical questions is immoral, is itself unscientific and contrary to the norms of the scientific institution from which she lends her authority in this case. Such a position then rather seems to represent a form of quasi-religious faith in science’. I agree. I keep arguing that far too much of what I read about AGW seems to be quasi-religious, and I recognise that some find this almost offensive. But the refusal to admit uncertainty, or accept that there could be doubt, cannot but strike one as making AGW akin to dogma, and that is characteristic of religion. It is not science, at least as I understand it.

So much of what passes for debate in this field has me wriggling with distaste. I rarely mention Dr Michael Mann of the fabulous hockey stick that had such a prominent place in the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC, and I haven’t read his apologia. What I didn’t know, until the SINTEF report and its appearance on several other websites, was that in his book Mann doesn’t refer at all to Montford’s well-researched and comprehensive analysis of Mann’s work, the Hockey Stick Illusion. Not one word. To me it’s another example of what I have called, and so has Royrvik, ‘quasi-religious faith in science’. We need vastly less of it.

I’ll finish by quoting in full Royrvik’s last paragraph, which seems to me to sum up where we ought to be, though not where we are:

‘In open societies where both scientists and the general public are equipped with critical skills and the tools of inquiry, not least enabled by the information revolution provided through the Internet, the ethos of science as open, questioning, critical and anti-dogmatic should and can be defended also by the public at large. Efforts to make people bow uncritically to the authority of a dogmatic representation of Science, seems largely to produce ridicule, opposition and inaction, and ultimately undermines the legitimacy and role of both science and politics in open democracies.’

I might be wrong about all this, and I am wrong about things from time to time. I learn through error. But I don’t learn, and nor does anyone else, by being told by others what the truth is, and instructed also not to question what I have just been told. I objected to it when the Christian evangelists were in their high period in the 1950s, and I object to it now.


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • As a long term admirer for your work, and (former) science researcher in biodiversity and climate related issues, I heartily agree with your pithy take “wriggling with distaste” on the debate, for example, and most everything else.

    Would be interested in your opinion on a view that I have formed that it is not really an argument from authority that is the problem. In most areas and especially science, one advances by gaining the support of peers for your ideas, not by authority. In the case of AGW, it has been very easy to rally scientists around the central idea as it is a kind of unifying principal, even the speculative aspects (what would happen if temps increased by x). This is also why skeptical studies have not gained traction, as they only serve to fragment the unified proposition that many find useful.

    Natural cycles and sun research has gained some traction as it is unifying to some degree. While the career opportunities in those fields are limited, they are greater than public opposition to a useful and generally accepted proposition.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    I think you are saying that because the AGW proposition is plausible, and has potentially serious implications for humanity, it is a useful organising principle for research. That is certainly true in that there are hundreds if not thousands of papers in the literature that start from the proposition that AGW is correct, and go on to set out what might happen then to the mouthless moth or the nutless gnat. And given the interest in the AGW proposition, to do so is likely to guarantee publication.

    If you are correct, then what would be needed is a lack of appeal in AGW, produced by a long cooling period, or the government’s losing interest, or both.

    Do say more, if I haven’t hit the nail on the head — or even if I have.

    • davids99us says:

      Don, To some people plausibility and serious implications constitute a ‘unifying principle’, though I would call that politics. Some might call it research that is relevant. I was thinking more about, e.g. ecology. While it used to be about communities and species interactions, all species interact with climate spatially and temporally over all scales. Take geography, or human geography, or epidemiology, these have a spatial and temporal relationship to climate. So many fields can adopt it for their agendas.

      And you are right, I have been saying for years that the only thing that will kill belief in AGW is a sustained period of cooling or lack of warming. I have been producing graphs showing the break points where warming has stopped, writing posts on how robust tests on autocorrelated data show no significant change, and so on. I think the cooling of interest in AGW is directly due to the ‘pause’ in warming.

      But then because the scientists started with a plausible but possibly incorrect proposition that AGW is correct, the “hundreds if not thousands of papers in the literature that start from the proposition that AGW is correct, and go on to set out what might happen then to the mouthless moth or the nutless gnat” are now, or soon will be, junk.

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