Sunday, January 10, 2010

Forteans out for a Burton

The following is a letter I've written to the Fortean Times regarding the editorial column in the current issue (258). The FT is a magazine which I've read for close to 20 years, and contributed many book reviews to, and which generally has high standards of factual accuracy and impartiality. This editorial, mostly a summary of 'controversies' around climate change, failed to meet those standards, being a largely fact-free witter deploying a lot of spurious arguments and biased language familiar from many common denialist sources - whether that was intentional, or just the result of sloppy writing, I don't know. I could have launched into a general argument about the column's bent (especially as I've recently been reading Hoggan and Livermore's Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, a well referenced exposé of the industry lobby groups behind much denialist blether), but decided to settle for a factual rebuttal of some of its central claims. For general reference, here's what I wrote:

Dear Editors,

I was disappointed to find that your reporting and commentary in the editorial column of FT258 on Justice Burton's legal ruling on philosophical belief is inaccurate and misleading in a number of respects. The inaccuracies are very similar to those seen in a lot of the newspaper commentary on the ruling at the time, but I would expect better of FT.

You say that: 'Mr Justice Michael Burton concluded that "a belief in man-made climate change... is capable... of being a philosophical belief for the purposes of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations."'

Those obvious elisions led me to seek out the actual ruling, to see what you'd missed out - a natural sceptical response, I'm sure you'd agree. I found the full text of the ruling with a few moment's googling (via Bindmans).

Here's what the ruling's summary actually said:
"A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations."

As the full ruling explains in some detail, it's those "alleged resulting moral imperatives" that make it a philosophical belief under the terms of this law, not the belief in climate change per se. Those 'moral imperatives', as stated by the claimant Tim Nicholson, are not necessarily accepted by everyone who gives credence to the overwhelming evidence for man-made climate change.

Your 'inevitable conclusion' that the case for man-made climate change is 'not a matter of scientific fact but of faith' is anything but inevitable. According to the ruling, the scientific nature, or otherwise, of the basis for the belief is irrelevant in judging whether it is a 'philosophical belief' in the terms of the law. Burton says: "In my judgment, if a person can establish that he holds a philosophical belief which is based on science, as opposed, for example, to religion, then there is no reason to disqualify it from protection by the Regulations."

You say that 'our belief in atoms or electricity has required no such special status'. That would be because they've not been subject to any similar proceedings under this law. However, Burton rules that other scientific theories may also be the basis for philosophical beliefs. With reference to the case "exemplified in the play Inherit the Wind", he notes: "Darwinism must plainly be capable of being a philosophical belief, albeit that it may be based entirely on scientific conclusions (not all of which may be uncontroversial)."

Equally, he says that Creationism could also be a philosophical belief for the purposes of these regulations, as could belief in political philosophies such as "Communism or free-market Capitalism". The way is already open for Flat-Earthers, or even climate change Denialists, to seek protection under the same law, so long as they can show that their beliefs are "genuinely held". There could indeed be some interesting cases ahead.

The ruling is a great deal more subtle, and arguably fortean, that you give it credit for. No doubt it could be criticised from a legal or philosophical viewpoint, but misrepresenting the contents of the ruling does nobody any favours. At the least, it's a very disappointing lapse from FT's usual standards of accuracy and impartiality.

At the time of the ruling, some newspapers did predict that it would likely be distorted by the denialist lobby to use as a rhetorical weapon against the scientific consensus. A similar thing happened with a previous ruling from the same Justice Michael Burton, in which he ruled against an attempt to prevent the film 'An Inconvenient Truth' from being shown in British schools. Burton approved the film for educational use, on the proviso that it be accompanied by notes highlighting nine instances where it potentially overstated the scientific consensus - a judgment that was spun by the denialist lobby to seem like a condemnation of the film and its arguments, even though the plaintiff (backed by industrialist and political activist Robert Durward) decisively lost his case. For details, see

As ever, it's worth looking at the primary material (the text of the ruling, in these cases), rather than just depending on contemporary media coverage.


Tim Chapman

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home