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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Polarised on polar ice

Science gets polarised when people only read their friends' caricatures of their enemies' views

As own goals go, this was a stunning shot.












Science magazine published a letter from 255 scientists (few of them climatologists) complaining in remarkably strong tones about

the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.

asserting, amazingly, that there is

nothing remotely identified [sic] in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change

and lecturing us ex cathedra that

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence

before calling for

an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association

(Would that include this?

James Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists, will today call for the chief executives of large fossil fuel companies to be put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature)

Science chose to illustrate this letter with a cover photo of a polar bear that was a photoshopped fake. They have now printed a correction.

Due to an editorial error, the original image associated with this Letter was not a photograph but a collage. The image was selected by the editors, and it was a mistake to have used it.

Steve McIntyre acutely observes the irony:

One of the apt ironies of this incident is that the notorious "trick" email describes a procedure that is essentially a "photoshopping" of the data - deleting adverse proxy data and merging with instrumental data - to give a false rhetorical impression in the diagram.

Yet, undeterred by the embarassment, the senior author of the letter now attacks climate moderates over the issue:

Of course scientist must try to get the facts as right as possible, and be willing to acknowledge and admit mistakes. And of course the photoshopped photo is a metaphor for the problem. But you (and many in the denial community -- a perfectly proper term, despite their complaining about it) are conflating my dismissal of the selection of bad ART, with my dismissal of those who would rather talk about ART as metaphor than science as fact.

and the editor of Scientific American somehow managed to argue that the episode reflects badly on sceptics.

The incident has become a perfect cameo of the larger climate-change issue: scientists speak out on the state of the research with facts and substantive arguments, and opponents jump on any small defects in what's said to argue, honestly or otherwise, that the climate science is wrong, corrupt or both.

Tip: this is not a good way to win over lukewarming moderates.

I was at a brilliant lecture by Bjorn Lomborg at the Royal Society of Arts last week and was amazed at the incoherent rage his mild and sensible lecture evoked in certain members of the audience.

I have seen science this polarised and politicised before, over the issue of nature and nurture, especially during the IQ, sociobiology and twin studies debates of 1970-1990.  What struck me when I went back and studied those debates for my book Nature via Nurture was the following simple observation:

Everybody reads the people they agree with; nobody reads their opponents' papers or books.

So the only thing they know about their enemies'  views is what their friends say about them.

Admit it: you do this. I know I do, though I nowadays try hard not to.

This is how scientific arguments get polarised.

Ludicrous things continue to be said about twin studies to this day, for example, by people who are astonishingly unaware of the facts because they have never read the original studies, only critiques of them.

Hence the extraordinary spectacle of John Rennie saying with a straight pen that the hockey stick graph has been vindicated. He's presumably not read Montford.

Please will both sides of the climate debate read each other's best work?