Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Ill Judged?

Top of the news tonight is the UK high court ruling on An Inconvenient Truth being shown in British schools. BBC TV news put it this way: "A controversial film on climate change has been heavily criticised by a high court judge"

The story is being spun two ways, depending on the source:

1. the judge allowed the video to be shown provided guidance notes to teachers are provided to cover the films factual inaccuracies and possble 'political bias'; the list of 9 points highlighted included:

Mr Gore's assertion that a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet would be caused by melting of either West Antarctica or Greenland "in the near future". The judge said this was "distinctly alarmist" and it was common ground that if Greenland's ice melted it would release this amount of water - "but only after, and over, millennia".

(source BBC news)

2. The judge being reported to agree that the film as a whole does promote 'partisan political views'.

(source Daily Mail, Fox News and similar)

It's not in dispute that climate change is man made and faces us with substantial risks to human life and society. Not in general and not in this ruling. An Inconvenient Truth appears to be one of the few bits of media reporting unbiased or otherwise which have brought that central truth home. My immediate reaction is I think the ruling seems naive and narrow on a number of grounds:

1. in giving ammunition to a scientifically rubbish position (climate change denial, masquerading as innocent scepticism), funded by big oil and similar interests.

2. in failing to realise that much of everything taught in schools is less than accurate (eg O-Level classical physics consists of a number of ideas which are quite 'flat earth' in the light of quantum physics, general relativity and so forth)

3. in thinking that any judge is qualified to rule on topics such as the likely rate of melting of the Greenland ice cap, when there is a diversity of views in the public domain supported by real scientists who disagree with others who disagree.... Prediction is not something you can 'get right' or be unbiased on. The sheer volume of information on climate change means the judge can only have viewed a sample presented by opposing law teams. If a judge ruled that nuclear power was safe, or not, what would that actually prove?

4. culturally naive in thinking that a few notes read out by a teacher will actually do anything to lessen the impact of the film which is a glorious piece of sweeping emotional and technical persuasion

5. in presuming to have the authority to 'judge' a cultural landmark which has played a major part in a sea change in attitudes and its rumoured will lead to Gore getting a nobel peace prize next week.

I suppose one reaction might be, who actually cares what a British judge thinks on climate change in general or Gore's film in particular? I'm sure the media will have great fun with it and I'm glad more young people will see the film.

NB there are bound to be some inaccuracies in the film for sure. But as a judge should know individual items of evidence and their validity are not the ultimate basis for deciding what the overall truth of a case is.


Luke Tipping said...

I agree John.

It's the aim of the film that matters and it's (not so distant) basis in truth.

I do worry that stories like this devolve the great work that is being done in building the case that climate change is a problem, and the subsequent solutions offered.

James said...

What rubbish. The thing that Gore raises, the possibility of a 23-foot rise in sea level in the next century, is a possibility. That's all that Gore was saying, that the speed of the melting of the Greenland ice was unknown, and that it could be much faster than thought -- as has been the melting of the Arctic sea ice and the Antarctic glaciers. He never raises it except as a realistic possibility.

John Grant said...

Yes, I agree. There are some who are saying this could happen. Who is a British judge to replace the peer review process in science & say that he knows what 'the common ground' is on this possibility?

I think what it exposes is the legal system where certain individuals wield unlected power and quite a bit of arrogance to go with it, with occasional impact on broader issues like this (or for instance the rulings in the US on the need to balance teaching about evolution with creationism - upheld in the State of Kansas for tthe last century and as recently as a ruling several years ago - although there has been a ruling against this in the State of Ohio).

Looking at Justic Potter's history he actually seems to be a 'government basher' (rather than any sort of climate change reactionary) and this is probably the real story?