Ecologic, By Brian Clegg

In defence of dissenting scientists

How did the universe begin? Today, most scientists believe it was with the "Big Bang". Until the 1960s, however, another theory competed for prominence. "Steady state" theory posited that the universe had no beginning or end, and that matter was constantly being created. One of its originators was the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. It was Hoyle who coined the term Big Bang: intended as a sarcastic put-down, the name stuck and the theory gained credence over its rival.

In Ecologic, Brian Clegg contrasts Hoyle's treatment with that of another dissenting scientist, Dr David Bellamy, who does not believe that climate change is being caused by humans. Yet while Hoyle's views were criticised respectfully, Bellamy has been attacked as a "climate change denier", which seems to put him on a par in some minds with those who deny the Holocaust. Clegg's point is not whether Bellamy is right, but that his vicious treatment by environmentalists "is based on fear and publicity rather than on... scientific analysis".

It's one of the more interesting points in a book which sets out to undermine green myths. Greens, claims Clegg, are too emotive, irrational and dreamy. What they need is "the dissecting scalpel of ecologic" – the application of science, economics and psychology to environmental problems. Clegg demonstrates cases in which sloppy thinking, a poor understanding of science or economics, or a desire for publicity have led to environmentalists making the wrong decisions.

These are arguments made with conviction, but they are not especially new, and Clegg is also prone to overegg things. His scientific bias against "basing our decisions on warm, rosy feelings" can seem at times as dangerous as a bias in the opposite direction: cold logic is only one basis for human decision-making, and rightly so. And Clegg is also not above a bit of emotive language himself. I lost count of the number of references to "hair shirts" he manages to crowbar into what remains, nevertheless, a sporadically challenging book.