We Need to Talk About Sonia

We Need to Talk About Sonia

Here’s a little teaser for you: What do Doctors Frankenstein, Honeydew and Michael Mann all have in common? No, it isn’t that they are all Muppets – Dr Frankenstein wouldn’t fit that pattern. The real answer is that they all provide an important reminder that scientists are, after all, human, and therefore prone to human frailty. As such, they can be egomaniacs, bumbling, or even both.

This is not, of course, our preferred cultural image of the scientist. We much prefer to think of them as our torch bearers for objectivity and integrity; an honour bestowed upon them at the expense of being branded nerdy and emotionally stunted. Even so, what better bunch of people in which to place our trust in a time of crisis? But wait! I’m forgetting that other group of intrepid truth-seeking heroes amongst us. Yes, I am forgetting the journalists! Not only do they enjoy, with the scientists, our highest levels of gullibility, they also get to say when we should and should not trust the man or woman in the white coat. And they can do this without ever having had to study science to any great extent. It’s a superpower, I think.

Sonia Sodha is one such superhero. With a scientific kudos that extends no further than an Oxbridge degree in politics, philosophy and economics, and having a background that includes being senior advisor to Ed Milliband, she boldly proclaims in the Guardian: Bias in ‘the science’ on coronavirus? Britain has been here before.

It’s an article that explores the uncertainties that have undermined the decisions and policies pursued by the UK government in tackling coronavirus. In so doing, Sonia displays a healthy scepticism that would not be out of place in your typical CliScep article. For example, one finds this little nugget:

“The paradox of science is that, while it aspires to peeling away bias to leave knowledge that is pure and true, it is practised by human beings who are as subject to biases as the rest of us.”

This is quickly followed by:

“As understanding of the problem of bias in science has grown, there has been much soul-searching about how to reduce it by improving the way research gets reviewed and scrutinised. But there has been much less focus on how to eliminate bias from the production of scientific advice for government.”

The role of SAGE, in particular, is placed under a critical microscope:

“Sage was set up as an ad hoc group with a rotating cast of scientists, yet is being held collectively accountable in a way that does not reflect this status. Its minutes are now being published, but do not adequately express dissenting opinion.”

By the time she has written, “Certainty comes across as authoritative, even when it is anything but”, you might be forgiven for thinking one was dealing here with a fully enrolled science denier, an ideal candidate with more than enough astute observations in her armoury for her to see behind the climate emergency. I’m almost on the verge of taking back everything I have said about journalists. Surely, Sonia is the one I’ve been waiting for – the Guardian journalist to start the fightback. After all, did she not say ‘we have been here before’?

Well, she did. However, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn’t the role of scientists in advising climate change policy to which she was referring; it was their role in deciding the UK government’s mad cow disease policy. What she has actually said previously in the Guardian regarding climate change is this:

“I know we’re fast approaching a catastrophic climate tipping point.’

So I’m afraid it turns out that the woman who seems to understand all about the importance of uncertainty and the politicization of science seems to know diddly squat about how these problems might apply to climate science. According to her, it all comes down to something she just knows. The words, “Certainty comes across as authoritative, even when it is anything but” start to look very hollow, particularly coming from a graduate in politics, philosophy and economics who is pontificating upon a scientific issue. So why the catastrophic lapse of judgement? Why the failure to apply her insights when they matter most? Why can she see the problem with bodies such as SAGE but doesn’t seem to see anything remiss with the concept behind the IPCC? Perhaps this explains it:

“When I decided I couldn’t support Labour in the European elections, because of its Brexit position, I voted Green instead.”

Yes, there you go. You can rationalise as much as you want, but when the rationale flies in the face of one’s values and preconceived beliefs, not to mention what has already become culturally accepted, then there’s no competition really. Once again, someone who would have you believe she knows all about bias seems to know nothing about bias blind spot.

It turns out that it’s not just the scientists but also the journalists who are human and so exhibit human frailty – they do not possess superpowers after all. They are not even as good at science as the scientists are. Who saw that one coming? And if someone with Sonia’s grasp of the issues still can’t be shaken from her conviction that a catastrophic climate tipping point is fast approaching, despite the lessons emerging from the COVID-19 ‘following the science’ debacle, then there really does seem to be no hope for any of us.

Okay, maybe things are looking bleak, but let’s not give up too easily. Maybe if Sonia were to read this from her own newspaper: Global heating: best and worst case scenarios less likely than thought.

Yes, let’s talk about that instead.

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July 26, 2020 at 04:47AM

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