Sometimes I envy the self-belief of the London Daily Mail's columnist Melanie Phillips. When Andrew Wakefield, a British researcher at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, suggested that there might be a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) injection, she decided he was right. Despite the failure of further studies to find any evidence, despite the fact that Wakefield's co-researchers have dissociated themselves from his allegation, and though the medical profession, almost without exception, is persuaded that his claim has no merit, she persists.
The epidemiologists are guilty of "category confusion"; the scientific reviewers are throwing up "clouds of obfuscation"; her critics are peddlers of "ignorance, misrepresentation and smear."
She's just as sure of her position on climate change. Last year she told listeners of BBC radio's Moral Maze discussion program that manmade climate change "is a massive scam based on flawed computer modeling, bad science and an anti-Western ideology ... a pack of lies and propaganda."
Soon afterwards, the Royal Society (in London) published a "guide to facts and fictions about climate change," whose purpose was to address the arguments made by people like her. It destroyed all the claims she had been making. A few months later, the deniers' last argument fell away, as three studies showed that satellite data suggesting the atmosphere had cooled were faulty. New Scientist reported that "as nails in the coffin go, they don't get much bigger."
BACK ON THE ATTACK
But nothing can stop her. Last week she resumed the attack. Manmade climate change is "one of the greatest scientific scams of the modern age," an artefact of "ideology, irrationality and pseudoscientific sloppiness."
"The rate of warming over the past century," she claimed, "is nothing out of the historical ordinary."
We also learnt that "most of [the atmosphere] consists of water vapor": the climatologists must have been lying about that too.
As usual, the scientists have the science wrong, and only Phillips, autodidact professor of epidemiology, gastroenterology, meteorology and atmospheric physics, can put them right. Where does she get it from? How do you acquire such confidence in your own rectitude that neither the evidence itself, nor the Royal Society (of elite scientists), nor the combined weight of the major scientific journals can alter by a whisker the line you have taken? Are you born knowing you have prophetic powers: that everything you believe is and will forever be true? Or does it come with experience? If so, what might that experience be?
The occasion for her latest outburst was a study published last week in the journal Nature, which showed, to everyone's astonishment, that plants produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Phillips used the findings to suggest that the entire science of global warming had been disproved and that there was no need to worry about the biosphere. Nature came to the opposite conclusion: as methane emissions from plants rise with increases in temperature, climate change will cause further climate change.
But while this study does nothing to threaten global warming theory, there is something it challenges. It should shake our confidence in one of our favorite means of tackling it: paying other people to clear up the mess we've made.