the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:



This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

What happened to the nation that bred Lord Nelson?

Every spring the Alton Society which I belong to organises a voluntary litter-pick to tidy up the town. This year it has  been decreed from on high that all the volunteers must now sign  a legal disclaimer before taking part.

Rather than accepting that this is another step on the great march of progress I thought that it was completely misguided. I care deeply about the dreadful problem of littering in this country and in our town and as an active member of the committee of the Society I have always seen this event one of the best things we do. I definitely wanted to contribute as usual. So I made a point of doing my litter-pick that morning (last Saturday) on my own responsibility, using my own equipment, and I didn’t sign anything for anybody.  So there.

Here are my reasons why I think this apparently naughty behaviour is establishing an extremely important principle.

First a picture:

Litter pick pic 1
The organised litter pick – volunteers assemble (photo by my wife)

Here are my reasons:

  1. The document is not signed to protect the volunteer, it is to protect the organisers from the fear of litigation
  2. It is assumed that failure to perform this ritual would invalidate the organisers’ insurance, but this protection is illusory because insurance companies are notorious for finding reasons not to pay out.
  3. This is an example of treating a tiny relative risk (the risk of the organisers being sued by a volunteer who hurts themselves) as an absolute risk which must be protected against, irrespective of the cost, financial and otherwise (see below).
  4. Signing the form does not make it the slightest bit less likely that an actual accident will happen.
  5. By taking responsibility for my own actions I was able to clear rubbish in a place which would probably have required a road closure if done by a public employee, and in another which probably involved trespass.
  6. I am told that many of the volunteers who did sign the disclaimer agreed that it was completely bonkers. This brings proper precautions into contempt and breeds cynicism.
  7. It also feeds the growing trend to see all accidents as someone else’s fault and for people to feel they are victims and entitled to compensation.
  8. Cultivating the belief, particularly among young people, that you can only pick up litter if you have joined a group, donned protective clothing and signed to make someone else take responsibility for your actions, is counterproductive to the real object of the exercise – to change the culture so that we have a litter-free town.
  9. It is noteworthy that people who believe proper precautions and rules should be strictly adhered to, as I do, are the same ones who oppose the paying of lip service to token precautions.
  10. This kind of obsessional aversion to minute, theoretical risks is an affront to people, again like me, who are properly concerned about the all-too-common denial of the unimaginably-larger risk of global warming.
  11. I worry about the next logical step – the next click of the ‘ratchet of progress’. I understand those who signed the disclaimer, including the MP and other dignitaries, mainly did so without reading it. And that it was actually a general-purpose disclaimer which included the hazards of cliff edges and seashores.
    I worry that when the next step is taken down this logical road it will be just as impossible for people like me to argue against it without appearing equally irresponsible.
    For example: it is not hard to imagine that in a few years time someone will decide that it is no longer good enough just to obtain token signing of a meaningless mantra in this way, and organisers will start being required to provide video evidence that they really did line the volunteers up and show them how to cross the road. It will then be just as impossible to argue against this increment of  progress and avoid accusations that you have failed in your duty of care by not going along with it. Especially in court after an accident, with a lawyer bent on apportioning blame,  however freakishly unlikely that accident may actually have been. At that time the manifest failure to comply with the ludicrous ritual automatically becomes the crime, regardless of any other circumstances.
  12. As I said in my 2001 book Friends in Low Places, after giving an imaginary example of mindless regulations blighting the professional lives of teachers:
    That is hardly an exaggeration and certainly not a joke, the reality is beyond parody – and certainly beyond a joke.
  13. And that’s my last reason – I wrote two books and numerous articles about this sort of thing, and lots of people said they agreed with me. So I simply had to make a protest last Saturday to be true to myself – even though it added loneliness to the squalor of the morning’s work.


Litter pick pic 2
All my own work. Six big bags and there’s a second recovered supermarket trolley out of shot. That strange mixture of disgust and satisfaction.

But, as I said in my first book, The Paradox of Progress, one person taking a stand achieves something amazingly powerful – it stops anybody ever saying again that ‘everybody goes along with it in the end’. That’s why I solemnly record that one person didn’t go along with it this time.

Further experience of our electric Car

Our VW e-up! after 7 months/3,200 miles
Our e-car

Gorgeous to drive

It is simply gorgeous to drive. We absolutely love it.

Elastic. Like the wind. Sweeping up hills. Effortless. Gliding. Peaceful and docile in city jams. Like a little rocket when you put your foot down. Wonderful feeling of peace after a journey

And none of that old nonsense of ‘starting the engine’. Whatever the weather, you just touch your foot on the brake, turn the key, drive away. When you stop, the engine stops. No gears (this is the thing that seems to surprise everybody) and of course no clutch. Electric motors have their maximum power at rest, completely unlike ordinary engines which have to be ‘started’ (with an electric motor!) and then have to rev up until they have enough power to get you moving.  So the e-up! zooms straight off with a complete absence of fuss. Smooth from the first instant. No ‘warming up’ and none of the lumpy performance of many internal combustion engines when they are ‘cold’.

Under way the response is beautifully sensitive, especially while manoeuvring gently. There is an excellent hill-hold function which means you don’t need the handbrake to start on a gradient, either forwards or reverse. And the clever ‘recuperative braking’ function – which turns the engine into a dynamo as you lift pressure off the accelerator, reclaiming energy and feeding it back into the battery – means that most of the time you don’t need to move your foot onto the brake pedal at all to slow down. This has become so automatic and so convenient that it is the thing I find myself missing most while driving the diesel car.

On the road the e-up! has a solid, quality feel. It’s a bit bouncy on rough roads, especially in the back, but on reasonable surfaces it is smooth and refined and feels like a much larger car than it is .

Another thing people ask is whether the lack of engine noise is a problem – should there be some sort of warning sound instead? On the contrary, the quiet is nothing but a bonus. Many modern cars, especially hybrids, are virtually silent at low speeds and all drivers have to be careful near pedestrians and cyclists. At higher speeds road noise from the electric car builds up and the bright LED running lights wrapped round the ends of the front bumper are extremely effective in making the car conspicuous, even out of the corner of the eye. These lights, the easiest way or distinguishing the e-up! from the petrol up!, are a safety feature we appreciate very much, especially on country roads.  Much more relevant to the comfort of pedestrians, surely, is the wonderful absence of noise and fumes. This is something that is is likely to be appreciated more and more as people become used to it and increasingly expect it. (As a matter of fact the only time a pedestrian has stepped out in front of us during the eight months we have had the e-up! was when I was driving the other (diesel) car and the pedestrian was wearing headphones.)

There are a few irritating economies which hang over from the inexpensive petrol up! but are out of place in a premium vehicle. The electric version is highly specified with, for example, an integrated ‘info-tainment’ console, with sat-nav, radio, bluetooth phone link, aids to economical driving and charting of battery range and accessible charging stations. Yet it comes with only one smart key. We found that getting a second would cost us the best part of £200 and require a complex verification procedure requiring ID. Again, for a four door car it seems mean not to have an interior light for the rear seats or one in the luggage compartment/boot.

One small point is that the plastic flap that covers the charge point sticks out and can be broken off if you walk carelessly by it the wrong way.

Overstated range

The most serious criticism we have is that the range is consistently overstated by the instrumentation. When you have got used to this you make allowances but this is very much the wrong way round! If, instead, you always got a longer range than indicated it would do wonders to combat ‘range anxiety’ and make a huge difference to how positive people felt about the whole experience. It seems an elementary mistake for VW to have made, possibly reflecting their own wishful thinking about their exciting new baby.

So, with the battery fully charged we get an indicated range of between 70 and 80 miles, which seems to be calculated from our driving style  over the last few journeys. This indicated range jumps to about 90 miles when we switch to eco+ mode (which turns off the climate control and restricts the performance a bit). But on the road, using a combination of driving modes (the touch of a button toggles through normal, eco, and eco+ modes) we can only rely on a range of 70 miles in the summer and 60 miles in winter (when the battery is less efficient and you need more heating and lights).  And another problem is that there is no way of finding out how much leeway you’ve got before you would actually run flat. Short, that is, of having a friend with a low-loader follow you until you roll to a stop. We suspect the car would actually go further than it says, but have no way of being sure. And you do need to be sure.

Which is why the e-up! is not, in our opinion, a practical only car. It is an absolutely fabulous second car, but you need something else for the longer journeys. Which brings me to the issue of charging the battery.

The nuts and bolts of the electricity bit
Charging at home from an ordinary 13 amp square-pin plug in the garage is practical, convenient and cheap. This is a huge advantage of the VW models – you simply don’t need a special charging point, whether subsidised or not. When the technician came to install ours we talked it through with him and decided not to go ahead.

Charging from a 13 amp plug in the garage. You can just see the green lights of the charging unit on the far wall beyond the wing mirror.

Our e-up! adds about 8 miles range for every hour of charging at home. During this time it draws about 2 kilowatts, less than an electric kettle and well within the output of our solar panels during more than half the year. To the extent that we charge like this our motoring is entirely cost-free and carbon-free. For people who worry about this sort of thing this benefit is very significant indeed.

The display on the e-manager app

Anyway, for these reasons we try to charge during the day.The VW Car-net app (another premium feature) allows us to monitor the state of charge remotely and switch the process on and off at will. Connection can be lost at times but usually it works brilliantly.

Staying with friends we can plug into their household supply just as easily as into our own – another big advantage of the VW way of doing things. Sometimes they have solar panels as well.

In the eight months we have had the electric car we have spent £481 on petrol for the Skoda diesel compared with £889 for exactly the same period last year when we had the same Skoda and a petrol Ford Ka. Which extrapolates to a saving of almost £700 in a full year, less 14p per kWh for any charging which isn’t covered by the solar panels. So, with the free road tax,  free car parking permit in the town and freedom from congestion charges if we went to London, we are already eating quite substantially into the premium price for this gloriously premium vehicle.

Using public charging points is another thing entirely. In fact it is a jungle. Fortunately, having the diesel Skoda to use for longer journeys we have hardly had to use public chargers at all. But we are beginning to get our heads around the options available and gain a little confidence.


To start with you can’t just go to a charging point, plug in and make any payment necessary with a credit card. Oh no. That would be far too sensible. The charging points are all run by networks for which you need different access cards, sometimes purchasing payment credits in advance. The exception is EcoTricity – you do need to apply for their card but it is free and charging is all free as well. The excellent SpeakEV electric car forum lists seven different networks at the present time. All their comments speak of the lunacy of this way of doing things. But you just have to decide which networks you need depending on where you live and where you want to travel.


And the next problem is that there are at least four types of connector and two categories of charging speeds. Low speed AC (Alternating Current) charging is relatively easy, it uses the Type 2 connector which seems to be pretty ubiquitous. But when we tried it at a garden centre 14 miles away and measured the charging rate it only charged at the rate we get at home – about 8 miles added each hour. So if we had arrived there with a nearly flat battery (which of course we didn’t) it would have taken two hours to add what we needed to get us home.

When you get to Rapid DC (Direct Current) charging the fun really begins because there are three incompatible systems.

SSE ChargePoint
SSE ChargePoint at The Rapids, Romsey
CCS – AC – CHAdeMO connectors
CCS connector
CCS business-end

As a Volkswagen our e-up! uses what is intended to be the new standard – CCS

Using this it should draw 30 kW and charge to 80% in 15-20 minutes.  More of these points are coming online and we now have a good range at about the right distance from home – Andover, Romsey, Farnborough, Fareham. Ringwood, Beaconsfield, Crawley, the M4/A34 junction and Reading.  So far we have not had a chance to try one, but it is looking good. Another advantage of rapid charge points is that they are unlikely to be occupied for as long as AC points.

As I understand it, Renault’s and Nissans use the CHAdeMO connector and the up-market American Teslar range use a third, completely different kind of its own, sited in places like hotel car parks. These last charge at an almost incredible 120 kW and give the cars a range of  200 miles.