Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The Royal Society & the Scottish Referendum

Why has the president of the world’s oldest science body issued a statement about Scotland’s independence vote? Why go near that thoroughly political question with a 10-foot pole?


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The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, is supposed to be about science. When one of its officials gets quoted, we naively imagine that Science – with a capital “S” – has spoken.

But the past few presidents of the Royal Society have demonstrated little ability to erect a firewall between their own personal views and precise, scrupulous science.

I can image no better illustration of this than the fact that Paul Nurse, its current president, thought it appropriate, prudent, and wise to issue a public statement in the wake of last week’s referendum on Scottish independence.

What was this man thinking? Why would he go near that nakedly political topic with a ten-foot pole?


Again and again in the climate debate, we’re told that prestigious organizations such as the Royal Society think human-caused global warming is a concern. The implication is clear – the objections and reservations of climate skeptics must be frivolous. Rather than questioning authority like normal, sensible people, climate skeptics are deliberately “manufacturing doubt” where none deserves to exist.

But as Andrew Montford makes plain in a distressing 2012 report, the Royal Society has become an overtly political organization. Martin Rees, for example, served as president from 2005 to 2010. During that time, the society issued a series of statements about what leaders of G8 countries should discuss at their meetings and presumed to declare what sovereign nations “must” do. Here’s a quote:

88. Throughout Rees’s tenure as president, the Royal Society had issued statements on climate change before each of the annual political summit meetings on the subject. In each of these the Society made demands for action

89. Towards the end of 2009, another statement was issued, timed to coincide with the closing stages of the Copenhagen conference. It was entitled ‘Preventing Dangerous Climate Change – The Need for a Global Agreement’…It was both scientifically dubious and far outside the scientific realm of expertise of the Society. [bold added]

While the heads of the G8 and other nations have been democratically elected by the public (and can therefore be turfed by the public), the Royal Society is not a democratic institution.

Instead, it is the quintessential old boys’ club. Presidents aren’t selected via an open, transparent process in which candidates throw their hat into the ring and campaign against each other. Instead, a small group of insiders decide who the next president will be. In a process reminiscent of the Soviet Union, ordinary members are then mailed an election “ballot” that contains only one name.

Afterward, rather than consulting broadly with the membership, this same small group of insiders decides what the Royal Society’s official position will be on a variety of subjects. (Since physicist Freeman Dyson has been a fellow since 1952 and is also a climate skeptic, the membership actually embraces a variety of perspectives.)

Rees, whose research career was in cosmology, was a doom monger before becoming president – writing an entire 2003 book titled Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning.

He is entitled to his personal opinions about the future. Paul Nurse is entitled to his about the Scottish referendum. But it is improper for either of them to use the Royal Society as a vehicle to express and promote these opinions.


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I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.

…we have been lucky to survive the last fifty years without catastrophe.

…if we could indeed survive the next century without catastrophic reversals…

Martin Rees,
Our Final Hour, 2003, pp. 8, 24, 104




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