Is free speech under threat from scientists?

From BBC Today Programme, 21 September 2006 (8:20)

Is it the job of Britain's foremost scientific academy, The Royal Society, to hector private companies about how they spend their money? There has been criticism of the Royal Society for asking the oil company Exxon Mobile to stop giving money to groups it argues misrepresent the science of climate change.

Dr David Whitehouse is a scientist and an author. Bob Ward is from the Royal Society. He wrote the letter to Exxon Mobile. Both join me now.

Dr Whitehouse. Why do you object to the Royal Society, to Bob Ward writing to Exxon Mobile?

David Whitehouse: My problem is not with the science, my problem is not with human-induced global warming. My problem is with the nature of science and the scientific debate, about different views. Different views, contrary positions, are essential to the progress of science. They are what keep arguments strong, the defence of arguments is what keeps them robust and healthy. And if somebody comes out with bad science, somebody comes out with misrepresentation, you tackle bad science with good science. It does not matter, it is irrelevant, whether these people are right or wrong, whether it's god science or bad science. What troubles me is that the Royal Society is demanding another organisation to stop funding groups that have views different from the scientific consensus. Their views, the value of their views, will be determined by argument and not by doing a tussle around their funding, to get their money turned off because you disagree with what they're saying.

BBC: Bob Ward. Can you respond to that.

Bob Ward: I can. Let me first correct the impression that being given. I did not demand that Exxon stops funding these groups. I made an observation in a meeting I had in July that they were making statements that misrepresented the science and that they were funding groups that were similarly misrepresenting the science. They then offered themselves to stop funding these groups. But let me make a distinction here.

BBC: Can we just follow this through. You then wrote to them saying...

Bob Ward: What happened is, after I'd explained why the Royal Society felt that the statements Exxon Mobile had made in a report in February, when I explained to them that they were wrong in our opinion, they then send me a report in the summer, a new report, which repeated all of the statements which I complained about in the first place.

BBC: And the letter which the Guardian got hold of yesterday was you saying to them: 'I would be grateful if you could let me know when Exxon Mobile plans to carry out this pledge.' Which is why I used the word 'hectoring,' it's a form of hectoring.

Bob Ward: Well, I like the idea that the Royal Society should be accused of bullying the world's largest multinational oil company. All we're doing is saying to them: it is very clear what the scientific community says about climate change. Anybody can find out by going to the website of the IPCC ( . And they can see what the scientific community thinks about climate change. And then they can compare for themselves the stsatements that are being made by Exxon Mobile and by these lobby groups - who are not groups of scientists. These are lobby groups, they are not scientists. Exxon Mobile are not offering scientific evidence.

BBC: Let me bring in Dr Whitehouse. Isn't that what the Royal Society should be doing, ensuring that the right information is out there?

David Whitehouse: The Royal Society should be arguing about science, it shouldn't be delving in such politics. It is clear from this letter that the Royal Society did have concerns about the support that Exxon was giving to groups which they disagree with. They can have concerns about that but their argument should not be with the funding, or the background. It's a question of free speech. Scientists in America won the right to criticise the Bush Government when they did not agree with them about global warming. The contrary should apply here.

BBC: Bob Ward. Have you stepped over a line here?

Bob Ward: We haven't. Let me be clear. We're not trying to shut scientists up. What we're trying to do is say to the lobby groups and to the companies that they should present properly what the scientific community is saying. Now, let me just tell you. One of the organisations that is getting funding from Exxon Mobile is the so-called Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. This is a statement on their website: "There is no compelling reason to believe that the rise in temperature was caused by the rise in carbon dioxide." Now, can David Whitehouse tell me which peer-reviewed scientific papers that statement is based on?

David Whitehouse: My point is not an argument about the science. The science is irrelevant in this context. You can go to your own website and read scientists talk about the uncertainties of global warming. The question is not whether these people are right or wrong. It's a question about their right to speak. When scientists and scientific organisations like yourself want to serve the cause of public policy, they do so best by following the ethics of science and not public relations and spin.

BBC: Let me just come in here. Dr Whitehouse. Isn't it the case that on this argument people would say the price is too high. And you don't have a level playing field if you have millions being pumped into bad science.

David Whitehouse: First of all. Does is matter that it is bad science? The science, whether it is bad or god, comes out in scientific argument. My problem is with distorting the playing field. Science is about free speech, science is about the exchange of information and argument. It's not about trying to find out who get money paid to somebody else because you disagree with him. We tell young scientists, the most important thing, we tell them, is to question authority. Why should I believe this because you say so?

BBC: We have very little time left. I want a final thought from you, Bob Ward. Is the Royal Society going to continue that sort of approach to prevent funding of organisations that they don't like what they're saying?

Bob Ward: The Royal Society's motto is "Nullis in Verba" - which means "where is your evidence?" (sic) If organisations make statements that are clearly at odds with what the scientific community says the evidence shows, yes, then we will challenge it. Because it does not serve the public for them to be mislead about what the scientific evidence says.

Benny Peiser comments: "Well, I'm not a classicist. But to my knowledge the Royal Society's motto is generally translated as "on the words of no one," meaning: take no theory in trust ... which is in essence the ethics of scientific scrutiny and debate David Whitehouse has been arguing for". (David Whitehouse was until recently the online science editor for the BBC)


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