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March 29, 2007

NULLIUS IN VERBA : a letter from Lord Rees

Baconboys_1 The Astronomer Royal , Baron Rees of Ludlow , current President of The Royal Society , has responded to my Wall Street Journal article criticizing its attempt to restrict corporate research funding of climate contrarians. The Op-ed in question and his reply follow--

......Nullius In Verba

In 1663, a group of savants formed a London club to discuss "useful knowledge." John Milton's "Areopagitica" was very much on the minds of those early scientists, for it warned that Puritan control of the press could turn into state control of thought. Dissent could get you killed in Restoration England, at sword's point if gentlemen took umbrage, or on the gallows if it traduced royal policy or Holy Writ. So they were mighty relieved when King Charles II agreed to join them, for, with such a patron, the Fellows of the Royal Society would not fear for their necks or purses when speaking truth to power or questioning authority -- until now.

The Royal Society's view of the conflict between authority and evidence is made clear by its motto. Nullius in Verba is Latin shorthand for what Harry Truman meant when he said "I'm from Missouri. Show me." It's a notion the full quote from Horace -- Nullius addictus judicare in verba magestri -- expands into the gold standard of objectivity: "Not compelled to swear to any master's words."
In political terms that translates into don't let policy proceed from mere perceptions of authority. Abroad, the Royal Society shares the outrage of American scientists at pious politicians seeking to constrain stem cell research funding. But at home the Royal Society seems bent on stopping research at odds with the environmental agenda of the Labor Party
Old Labour's hoariest political stratagem, class warfare, collapsed along with communism a generation ago. In that implosion's aftermath, the environment has become New Labour's communitarian fall-back excuse for justifying societal intervention. The Royal Society has been a Whig institution since Darwin's day, encompassing a dynasty of left-wing science popularizers going back to J.B.S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell. Now it is trying to establish itself as a virtual Leviathan in the world of Green politics by extending the political correctness of Tony Blair's nanny state into the scientific realm. Its latest outburst is an Orwellian call to defund scientific inquiry instead of defending it.

The Royal Society's senior manager for policy communication, Robert Ward, has tried to browbeat Exxon Mobil into blacklisting 39 groups whose inconvenient dissent casts doubt on the policy agenda shared by the Society and the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change. A letter from Mr. Ward to Exxon leaked to the Guardian reveals that he wants those he deems to have "misrepresented the science of climate change" put on a Do Not Fund List because "[t]he next IPCC report gives people the final push that they need to take action and we can't have people trying to undermine it."

In other words, stop gainsaying the science that Green foundations are paying good money to advertise. The source of political contention is less the science in the IPCC's indigestibly erudite 4,000-page reports than their translation into vivid Green rhetoric by the bureaucratic masters of the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP). Those floridly political "executive summaries" have driven everything from the Kyoto Treaty to EU regulation of refrigerators.

Those who aspire to New Labour's science establishment may feel compelled to swear by such words, lest they end up blackballed from the other London club frequented by the Society's president, the House of Lords. Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, owes his peerage to faithful service as Tony Blair's chief science adviser, and echoing Foreign (and past Environment) Minister Margaret Beckett's repetition of whatever Green publicists air. The laboratory cash flow of the honorable Eco-Lord's pals will also swell if the Royal Society can empower UNEP by silencing disloyal whispers that no one knows how to forecast climate 344 years hence.

And silence them it will -- protracted scientific controversy about global systems models is tedious, and the authoritarian backroom boys at the Royal Society understandably intend to end it. Mr. Blair's "Yes, Minister" nanny state scorns free speech. True, some of the contrarian organizations on the blacklist are no great loss to science because they are run by registered lobbyists. But their reluctance to acknowledge climate change is no excuse for freezing out freedom of scientific inquiry.

The Royal Society must choose between its motto and using other people's purse strings to throttle dissent -- if the motto goes, it must abdicate its divine right to pontificate as well. If it persists in toying with censorship, it should be privatized for seeking to subjugate the Republic of Science to the words of its political masters.

If it wants to reinvent itself as a Green PR firm, fine -- let the private foundations pushing the UNEP foot the bill. Perhaps they can underwrite the hostile takeover of scientific independence by selling Royal Society Fellowships, just as New Labour does peerages, for payments in cash or political kind. But what about the clubhouse?

Lord May & Co.'s palatial premises overlooking St. James's Park should of course revert to the crown, whence the late Society's grace and favor so long flowed. Her Majesty's government may want to turn it into condos, like the former Royal Mint, as advertising firms already in the business of selling science would pay handsomely for such a prestigious address, and diehards bent on imposing technical literacy on Parliament (or Congress) can still be locked safely away in its commodious wine cellar. Few in government will notice their absence, because fashionable as talk of politicized science may be, it cannot fairly be said to exist until both sides have some inkling of what it is they are trying to politicize.

No one compelled Thomas Jefferson to swear "eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." If the recent history of science has anything to teach, it is that there is no place in a free society for a self-appointed Central Committee of Scientific Truth. Until the Royal Society comes to grips with the Enlightenment, its baroque motto deserves a rest.


Reesges Russell Seitz's florid depiction of the Royal Society "Nullius in Verba,"  is entertaining but misleading in the extreme. It is ironic that he labors to portray us as an organization with scant regard for the evidence when he fails even to identify me as the current president. (Lord May was my predecessor.)

Contrary to his accusation, the Society has never sought to prevent the funding of scientific inquiry on climate change or any other area. In fact, the Society champions and promotes academic freedom. It funds some of the United Kingdom's best scientists on the basis of their excellence and does not place any conditions on their research that would in any way compromise their independence.

The Royal Society has never asked Exxon to stop funding any organizations. At a meeting, instigated by Exxon, the Society pointed out that the company was funding a number of groups that have been misinforming the public about the scientific evidence on climate change. The company freely made a pledge to stop this funding, and the letter Mr. Seitz cites in his article followed up that assurance.

The Royal Society and 10 of the world's scientific academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, have spoken out on climate change in order to clarify where the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence lies. Let us be clear: This points to the need for urgent international action to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

Ensuring that science is properly represented is wholly in keeping with the Society's motto, "Nullius in Verba." This translates as "on the words of no one," an expression of commitment to empirical evidence as the basis of knowledge about the natural world. The debate about how to tackle climate change must be based on the science rather than misinformation propagated by lobby groups.

Martin Rees
President of the Royal Society


Russell Seitz comments:

I did not wish to make Rees a party to a controversy initiated by his predecessor ,  but regret I failed to catch the removal of  'past ' from in front of  'president '  at one point as the essay was edited down to Op-ed length by the WSJ.  I ought indeed to have followed the RS election cycle more diligently.

However, I note that Rees fails to identify himself as having presided over the departure of past  Manager For Policy Communications Ward from the Royal Society's employ ,to join ,of all things , a floridly Green ' lobby group.'


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David Smith writes :
I'm delighted to hear Dr. Rees say "This translates as 'on the words of no one'... a commitment to empirical evidence as the basis of knowledge..."

I take that to mean that the programming language "words" that, added to assumptions and simplifications make up computerized models (software = data structures + algorithms), will no longer be used to drive policy recommendations.

Or is that too much to hope?

RS responds to David Smith :

The noble Lord Master of Trinity
I'm sure would be glad to be rid of me
But it's Latin infernal to make in The Journal
Of nemo and nullius a quiddity

Mr. Rees I am sorry but your position does not convince.

Let me put this simply; as long as the troposphere temperature data does not fit the theory, the theory that carbon dioxide causes greenhouse effect warming is wrong. In addition, as long as the paleo record shows that, in the past, temperature increase has preceeded carbon dioxide increase the theory that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes warming is wrong. You cannot dismiss a violation in causality with a wave of the hand or a claim on consensus. Other evidence that may or may not support the theory is irrelevent.

If a theory fails to explain observed phenomena or fails to be useful as a predictive tool it should be discarded. At the present the theory you are supporting has failed on both criteria.

The global warming establishment has turned a legitimate scientific question into a large scale demonstration of poor ethics. This is doing a great damage to science as a whole.

What part of ' carbon cycle feedback' don't you understand ?

So Lord Rees's position is that because the Royal Society takes the word of no man, we should take the word of the Royal Society?

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