I was idly surfing the English language TV news channels looking for reactions to the Greek crisis, and came across two science items. In the first the presenter was interviewing a science correspondent who was holding a cuddly furry toy polar bear.
“Robust, robust, robust!” I thought she said, but it turned out she was talking about robots, so I switched channels and landed on another presenter interviewing another science correspondent. Here’s a rough transcript from memory:
Interviewer: So what’s in a black hole?
Science Correspondent: Well, until recently scientists couldn’t see many black holes since they’re hidden in massive gas clouds that you can see here. Now thanks to the new NASA telescope launched in 2012 we’ve discovered billions more..
Interviewer: So could you explain to viewers exactly what is a black hole?
Science Correspondent: Well, this may seem like rather obscure physics, but thanks to this new technique using high energy X-rays, we can see through the dust, which led to the discovery of Wi-Fi, so it’s really of enormous benefit…
I may have got some of the science wrong. Maybe it wasn’t WiFi that was discovered thanks to the search for black holes but frozen pizzas, but that doesn’t affect my argument, which is this:
How can you take seriously the explanations of a science correspondent who can’t understand a simple question like “What is it?” or “What’s in it?”
Suppose the subject had really been frozen pizzas and he’d been the cookery correspondent. Failure to understand the question “What’s in it?” would have got him the sack. But this is science, and science can’t be wrong, or irrelevant, or bonkers.
And the relevance to the subject of climate change, and to my disenchantment with the subject, is this:
Day after day someone like Andrew Montford at http://bishophill.squarespace.com/
reveals someone saying something wrong on the internet, or on the BBC, or in a declaration by the Royal Society, and day after day his attempts at clarification or correction are met with insults and obfuscation, never ever with a straight answer.
You can view the Bishop Hill blog, or the internet, or life itself, as a long unwinding courtroom drama with a verdict at the end where good men and true will announce the truth and the world will move on. Most of Montford’s fans seem to see things like that, but they’re mostly scientists, or at least people with a respect for scientific method and the rules of logic. You can call such people rational human beings, or, if you want to be rude and philosophical about it – “naïve realists”.
If they ever trouble their heads with philosophy, they’d probably agree with Wittgenstein that “the world is what it is and not another thing” and leave it at that – the corollary of Wittgenstein’s dictum being that if you point out to people who think the world is something other than what it is that they’re wrong, they’ll change their minds.
Those of us (arts graduates mostly) who realise that the world is not like that look for other explanations, other motives, and find them rather easily in the domain of psychology. Describing belief in catastrophic man-made global warming as a religious cult, or mass hysteria, and its proponents as liars, charlatans, eco-fascists, fruitcakes or (a new favourite among certain commenters at Bishop Hill) leftist scum – is fun, but ultimately pointless, since it eliminates all possibility of rational dialogue, and can only reinforce the warmists’ often-expressed belief that we sceptics are all liars, charlatans, Big Oil shills, fruitcakes and rightwing scum.
Some of us are, but not all of us. (But that’s the kind of admission that can only lead to more insults, which could bring me back to the Greek crisis – and it will in a minute – but I want for the moment to stay with that interview with the science correspondent.
A more fruitful pathway to an understanding the utter irrationality of the climate non-debate would be a sociological study of the warmist phenomenon. Tiny footsteps are being made in this direction by professional social scientists like José Duarte at
and less successfully, it seems to me, at Nottingham University. See my harsh and no doubt unfair criticism of Amelia Sharman at
and most successfully, as far as I know, by Rupert Darwall. See
My couch surfing which led me to the two interviews of science correspondents suggested to me a more fundamental explanation than mass hysteria or religious fervour. Could the unthinking acceptance of warmism – largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon – have deeper roots – in our attitude to science (and knowledge in general) and in the deformation of the language itself, caused by a wilful ignorance of basic rules of grammar and syntax – things like: a sentence of the form: “What is it?” requires an answer of the form: “It’s…”?
Demanding that a scientist holds a cuddly toy while explaining advances in robotics is so typical of media dumbing down of science that we don’t notice how odd it is. But hey, cricket is complicated too, but most sports reporters leave their teddy bears in the dressing room.
We demand (or rather, the media demands) that scientists keep it simple, but we don’t demand what any primary school teacher would demand – that they answer the question “What is it?” with a description of what it is, and not another thing.
I surfed on, and did find an item on Greece. It was the BBC’s Robert Peston blow-drying his hair below the Acropolis while meaningless garbage dribbled from his lips. This is a top economics correspondent, and what he said made no sense. Couldn’t he have gone back to his hotel room and written down what he wanted to say, if necessary delivering his message in front of a colour photograph of the Parthenon? I know he has a reputation for being peculiar, but does acceptable eccentricity extend to uttering nonsense?
I know I’m just a grumpy old man, and I’ve been criticised here for my grammatical mistakes – significantly by Maurizio Morabito, who writes as well in English as he does in Italian. And therein lies a clue.
I yield to no-one in my contempt for the news coverage of French TV (with the exception of the excellent France24 English language channel) but last night the two rolling news channels BFMTV and I-télé did an excellent job of covering the Greek referendum. For months they’ve been covering the Greek story with ten second shots of Varufakis getting on and off his motorbike, sandwiched between more interesting stuff like heatwaves and football. But yesterday was a referendum, which is a bit like a football match, and while waiting for the result the studios were filled with experts, journalists, politicians – even some Greeks. There was even a spokesperson for the socialist government dragged from her bolthole.
As usual, they all spoke at once, and as usual, the politicians, who don’t speak English, and therefore can’t follow events at
were abysmally ignorant. But at least they all spoke in grammatical sentences, even when exchanging insults. The result was discussion, debate, politics – the fundamental particles of culture and civilisation. Anyone caught burbling would have been drowned out by his interlocutors and not invited again.
A politician in France who fails to accord an adjective correctly is ridiculed and considered unfit for high office. A prole-ish accent will get you ridiculed in England, and the better interviewers on BBC Radio 4 will sometimes demand that the interviewee answer the question, but as for forming connected thoughts in grammatical sentences, just see almost any transcript at Alex Cull’s
Don’t stop me if I’ve said this before (repetition is a privilege of the senile):
The great Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, who ran a journal called Die Fackel between the wars upholding the purity of the German language and denouncing stupidity in all its forms, was once challenged by a friend: “The Japanese are busy massacring people in Manchuria, and all you can worry about is whether people put their commas in the right place.”
to which Kraus replied:
“If people put their commas in the right place, then the Japanese wouldn’t be massacring people in Manchuria.”
Wrong but Wromantic. (And apologies to Maurizio for my erratic placing of brackets.)