For the record…

Recently I was involved in discussions that led to a meeting of climate-change skeptics moving from UCL premises. As a result, a couple of articles appeared about me on a climate website and on the right-wing “Breitbart” site.

In the more measured article by Christopher Monckton (who has more reason to be ticked off, since he was one of the meeting organisers) I’m called a “useless bureaucrat” and “forgettable”. The other article uses “cockwomble” (a favourite insult of mine), “bullying” and “climate prat”. Obviously it is difficult to respond to such disarming eloquence, but I do want to set the record straight on one thing.

My involvement was by means of an email to an honorary – ie unpaid – research fellow in the department of Physics & Astronomy, of which I am currently head, based on concerns expressed to me by UCL colleagues on the nature of the meeting and the way it was being advertised. The letter I sent is quoted partially, and reproducing the full text might give a better idea of the interaction. It’s below. The portions quoted by Monckton et al are in italics.


Dear Prof [redacted]

Although you have been an honorary research associate with the department since before I became head, I don’t believe we have ever met, which is a shame. I understand you have made contributions to outreach at the observatory on occasion, for which thanks.

It has been brought to my attention that you have booked a room at UCL for an external conference in September for a rather fringe group discussing aspects of climate science. This is apparently an area well beyond your expertise as an astronomer, and this group is also one which many scientists at UCL have had negative interactions. The publicity gives the impression that you are a professor of astronomy at UCL, which is inaccurate, and some of the publicity could be interpreted as implying that UCL, and the department of Physics & Astronomy in particular, are hosting the event, rather than it being an external event booked by you in a personal capacity.

If this event were to go ahead at UCL, it would generate a great deal of strong feeling, indeed it already has, as members of the UCL community are expressing concern to me that we are giving a platform to speakers who deny anthropogenic climate change while flying in the face of accepted scientific methods. I am sure you have no desire to bring UCL into disrepute, or to cause dissension in the UCL community, and I would encourage you to think about moving the event to a different venue, not on UCL premises. If it is going to proceed as planned I must insist that the website and other publicity is amended to make clear that the event has no connection to UCL or this department in particular, and that you are not a UCL Professor.

Best wishes,
Jon


 

After receiving this, the person concerned expressed frustration at the impression given by the meeting publicity, and decided to cancel the room booking. I understand the meeting was successfully rebooked at Conway Hall, which seems like a decent solution to me. As you can see in the full letter, the meeting wasn’t in any sense banned.

Free speech and debate are good things, though the quality that I’ve experienced during this episode hasn’t much impressed me. As far as I’m concerned, people are welcome to have meetings like this to their hearts’ content, so long as they don’t appropriate spurious endorsement from the place in which they have booked a room.

I have since met the honorary research fellow concerned, and while mildly embarrassed by the whole episode (which is why I haven’t mentioned his name here, though it’s easy to find it if you really care), he did not seem at all upset or intimidated, and we had a friendly and interesting discussion about his scientific work and other matters.

Bit of a storm in a teacup, really, I think, though I’m sure James Delingpole was glad of the opportunity to deploy the Eng. Lit. skills of which he seems so proud.

 

 

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Guardian Science and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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