Rupert Sheldrake displays appealing eccentricity

On 12 January, 2013, there was a TEDx event at Whitechapel in London. One of the talks was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and was entitled The Science Delusion. This is the British title of his book which in the USA is called Science Set Free.

His talk came to my notice because TED later banned it. More accurately they removed the video from their YouTube channel, and someone else promptly re-posted it. There is a discussion on their blog on the matter. No doubt TED carefully considered the possible damage their action would do to their reputation for open-mindedness, and what they choose to include on their channel is their business, but surely someone there has heard what happens when you ban something. When the BBC bans a record it immediately climbs to the top of the charts.

When the equivalent happened to this video I waited a while till the dust had settled, the more calmly to examine it. Shall we now see what the fuss was about?

He’s barefooted! I love eccentricity in all its guises, because it shows a determination to plough your own furrow. It also suggests an inner self-confidence and calmness, though I find other things about his body language tend to belie this. His hands bother me, because they seem to bother him. When they hang at his side, the fingers constantly fidget – a common nerve symptom. I find myself willing him to put at least one hand in a pocket and he appears to hear me because his left hand goes into his jacket pocket. I think that this configuration could be a suitable ‘Happy Home’ for his hands.

He needs to find one, a default location whither to send his hands when he finds himself conscious of them, because if it’s the right Happy Home he will immediately cease to be conscious of them and they will do their own thing. Their own thing is excellent: his gestures are eloquent and strong. Being eager to doff my rhetor hat and just listen, I quickly do so.

He lists ten dogmas on which he maintains science is built, telling us that he will have time in this talk to dwell on only two or three of them. Nevertheless he is already controversial. Science is supposed to be built on open-minded inquiry, and scientists will claim it is so, but immediately we spot that his claim must be correct. Dogma-free doesn’t ban speeches that claim it is built on dogma. Who are these poor dears that made his case for him?

His principal target seems to be an idleness that has caused the scientific establishment to try to simplify science into mechanistic constants that nevertheless seem to defy them by fluctuating. And it looks to me as if I have made the same mistake by trying to summarize the talk in a single sentence.

I think I should stop trying to précis this: I would prefer to trail it. You need to watch it. It is intensely thought-provoking, and already I plan to buy the book.

Tom Holland addresses Islam

On 25 May 2015, Tom Holland delivered the inaugural Christopher Hitchens lecture at the Hay Festival. He called it De-radicalising Muhammad. It was an appropriate title for a speech in memory of a man who was so articulate in his condemnation of organised religion in general and Islam in particular.

Holland begins at 1:55 and ends at 37:40. The rest is questions.

He begins with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens whom he never met. He tells us that he has been instructed that to be true to Hitchens’ memory his talk should be controversial. If as a non-Muslim you are speaking about Islam, or any aspect of it, you are hard-pressed not to be controversial. Holland highlights this, while nevertheless pointing out with examples that Hitchens courted controversy on this subject with some eagerness.

“Nothing to do with Islam…” that is the stock phrase, trotted out by politicians after every new abomination committed by jihadists. Holland cites this as an attempt to de-radicalize matters, but also shows why it is counter-productive. Anyone, particularly a non-Muslim, who says those words is implying that he or she knows the nature of authentic Islam, a claim which is transparently absurd when even Muslim scholars can’t agree. He proceeds with a history lesson that starts with the life of Muhammad himself, including matters of contention surrounding its details.

From where I stand, as a faintly bemused outsider, Holland seems to address this history in about as balanced a manner as is possible, and his ultimate target slowly becomes clear. The fulcrum of the speech, the point at which we finish with the background and venture into a suggested route to a solution, arrives at 16:54 with the words, “Unless Islam can draw sustenance from its own traditions to purge itself of what is going on in its name then really there’s very little hope”.

I don’t want to say any more in description of this excellently structured and argued piece of erudition, because it’s time for me to don my rhetor hat.

Holland is doubly equipped with microphones. He has a face mic, and stereo mics on the lectern. One of those sound systems is providing the feed for this video, and I’m pretty certain it’s the one on the lectern. It is ‘splashing’. Splashing is a cousin of popping (and there’s a tiny bit of popping too). It is when sibilant consonants, principally the ‘s’ sound, give a distorted splashing sound on the output. It’s a pity when he is delivering such good stuff. Slap on the wrist for the sound-engineer.

He has a script. You may think it barely matters when he merely glances at it, and you’d be right to a degree. He does handle the script extremely skilfully, but still it detracts from his delivery. Occasionally he quotes someone else’s words and then I have no problem with it, but too much of his looking down is comfort-blanket stuff. Watch an instance when his eyes go down and ask yourself if he really needed to read those particular words to speak them. Most of the time the answer will be no.

If you want fully to appreciate the difference in quality of delivery when he addresses his script and when he doesn’t, watch a sustained period when his eyes stay up and he shoots a section from the hip. There is one such between 31:30 and 33:20. In it he is subtly more engaged with his audience than the rest of the time. More importantly (to him) he is every bit as articulate and coherent, employing the same high quality of phrasing, as when he is reading. It is this that he doesn’t quite trust himself on. He feels he has a need to underpin his natural fluency with the written word. He is wrong, but I suspect he would take some persuading.

For all that Tom Holland is an impressive speaker, and this is an important and valuable speech.

Philippe Sands and climate dissent.

Canadian investigative journalist Donna Laframboise has been publishing on Big Picture News, her blog, a series of articles showing how the international establishment is working to silence free speech on the subject of climate change. The latest of these articles, Silencing Dissent via the Courts, described a lecture by Philippe Sands QC at the UK Supreme Court last week. Laframboise suggests with some justification that Sands is seeking to make it internationally unlawful for anyone to express an opinion on climate change that is contrary to the Establishment line.

Personally I am alarmed that lawyers get involved with the expression of any opinions – particularly scientific ones. If someone wanted to question the existence of gravity, for instance, I’d be outraged if a court tried to stop him.

In the case of climate change this lecture looked to me like just another precursor to the attempted United Nations power grab that the December climate conference in Paris will represent. If the proposed treaty goes through the world will, for the first time, have an unaccountable global supranational power ruling over it. And that’s not a crackpot theory, but documented under UN imprimatur. Climate change has been an extraordinarily convenient instrument with which the UN has been able to crank up its grip on world affairs over the past twenty years. That is why politicians and prelates pronounce their conviction at a volume that varies in inverse proportion to the validity of the evidence. The UN is become the fountainhead of authoritarianism.

Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming began as a tenuous theory, backed up by little more than computer models making predictions. The globe has refused to cooperate with those predictions. You would be hard pressed to find a single one that has been realized by actual events, even though we are already a long way beyond the computers’ projected timetables. Taken from official data, there has been no increase in global temperature for nearly nineteen years, no abnormal rise in sea levels, no reduction in net polar ice, no increase in severe weather patterns, and five times as many polar bears as when I was a boy. That is not to say that the theory is necessarily wrong, but it does increase what have always been serious doubts. Let us see to what extent Philippe Sands QC acknowledges those doubts.  He begins at 8:05

If you are a lawyer you may find this riveting. If not you may not. I am not a lawyer. The etymology of the word ‘lecture’ decrees it to be a reading. This is a reading. The quality of Sands’ delivery notwithstanding, the people in the room seem to be staying awake; but I would rather be at home with a good book – or even a bad one.

After some preliminary niceties he begins with an account of some meeting some years ago in the UN whereat the islands of Palau were making a noise about imminent submerging under rising sea levels. Interestingly, although he does discuss in detail the legal ramifications of all this, he never actually tells us whether sea levels were rising or have since risen or whether the islands have in the mean time gone on their own sweet way. Having just googled them I can tell you that the indications are the last.

And this sets the tone for the entire lecture. Nowhere does he actually supply any hard evidence to support the climate change theory, merely protesting in impenetrable legalese that international courts have no proper influence over the matter.

The nearest he comes to evidence is an extended argumentum ad verecundiam beginning around the 17 minute mark. He extensively quotes the IPCC. As far as I could tell he quotes no actual data.

The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change was founded in the ’90s under the auspices of the UN. Let us note the words ‘climate change’ in its name. Why is that significant? Because if there is no climate change there is no IPCC. Its existence and a large number of taxpayer-funded jobs depend upon a presumption encapsulated in its name. Over the years several venerable scientists have left it, protesting that they have been misrepresented. Nevertheless, though independent organisations sent in to audit its work have been critical of its being a political rather than a scientific body, the IPCC has produced five assessment reports, each accompanied by a summary for policymakers. The latter begins life as a draft produced by the IPCC and is then for several days subjected to phrase-by-phrase editing by a huge international panel of political beings ensuring that the summary follows the political narrative they wish to pursue. Therefore what began as a political bit of purported science becomes further politicised out of all recognition. And that’s the authority that Sands quotes. Again I say argumentum ad verecundiam, and pretty shoddy verecundiam at that.

At 43:00 Sands says, “the room for real doubt has disappeared”. He is a Professor of Law. I wonder what terminology he would deploy to tell a student, whose research was as shallow as quoting a single and interested source, that he’d been inexcusably idle.

He continues till 56:22; and essentially he has called for the International Court of Justice via the evidence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be granted extraordinary powers over matters of scientific opinion, in order to facilitate the signing of a treaty in December which would give the UN unaccountable powers that no body – elected or otherwise – has ever had before.

Both the ICJ and the IPCC are UN bodies. All are impervious to the wishes of any electorate. What was it someone once said about absolute power?

Brendan O’Neill upholds the duty to offend.

On 5 March The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend“.

If you yearn to watch all the speeches in the debate in the order they were delivered you can do so here. I may well explore more than one of the speeches in the fullness of time, but today I shall examine the first. It comes from Brendan O’Neill.

I have been looking back through the blog at O’Neill’s speaking, and my comments on it, since this post here. The improvement is startling. Since I first came across him he has been a fine writer but the standard of his speaking used to lag far behind, not least because he appeared not to see the huge difference between the two communication media.

I see him now and it is clear that he not only understands the difference but that he has worked at this medium. I want to cheer, because he has so much sense to articulate. He has shown himself to be a fierce and uncompromising defender of free speech, and that is why he is here.

He is out of the starting blocks at a sprint. He hurls at his audience a succession of blockbuster examples across history of people, later revered, whose opinions were held to be offensive to the orthodoxy of their time. He shows that those doing the offending were usually the giants of their generation, and those who tried to silence them were always the pygmies. They showed themselves to be pygmies by trying to silence the contrary view rather than engaging with it and out-arguing it. It’s a wonderful speech that makes me want to cheer.

There’s seems to be a widespread view that says that all opinions held in the past were primitive, naive and wrong; but that those we hold today are correct. We’ve reached the finishing line. All history of all things pointed to this moment of total enlightenment. Now finally we’ve got it right. The science is settled. The debate is over. If you disagree with us you are wrong – by definition – and a bad person.

What I find puzzling about this is not just the pitiful arrogance, but the imbecility of it. It’s a philosophical position that has been repeatedly adopted for thousands of years, and always collapsed. Yet still it has its adherents – principally among the intelligentsia. You have to be an intellectual to be quite that stupid. I feel I want to pat them gently on the head with a soothing, “yes dear”, and offer them a mug of warm cocoa.

O’Neill on the other hand wants to show them how idiotic their position is, and as a speaker he does it very effectively. He has almost reached the point at which he would trust himself enough to be rid of paper. Indeed so seldom does he glance at his notes that he could now afford no longer to do it surreptitiously. It is acceptable quite openly to glance at notes to remind yourself of your next argument, as long as you then shoot it from the hip. O’Neill is very close to that level and it makes him almost as formidable on his feet as he is on paper.

His final sentence rocked me. It was supposed to. It made the whole speech memorable. It neatly typified his whole argument.

Daniel Hannan: aiming for the wrong target

Earlier this year a European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin was addressed by MEP, Daniel Hannan.

He has graced this space many times, and with good reason. He is very good, in fact one of the best. Not wanting him to monopolize the blog I watch probably ten times as many of his speeches as I cover here, and I’ve decided today to air a concern for him that I’ve been suppressing for a time. The concern was triggered by something he tweeted some months ago.

Outstandingly good though he is, I fear that the way he is heading will not make him any better, but could easily make him less effective on the speaking platform. He has his sights on the wrong target.

I have mentioned before – here, for instance – that Hannan has a tendency to swallow syllables or sometimes words or even occasionally whole phrases. It’s not idleness: he is doing it on purpose for dramatic effect. He varies the tonal colour of his speaking, making it sometimes loud sometimes soft – though those too adjectives don’t nearly cover the myriad nuances that he finds. Though I feel he tries too hard I can’t quarrel with any of that as such, except for the technical detail that he isn’t accomplished enough vocally to be heard when he is at his softest, so bits go missing.

But that is merely a symptom of what concerns me.

At 4:26 there is a high shot from the gallery,which pans from Hannan to the audience. Out of interest I paused the video at random and found that out of 34 visible audience members 9 were engaged in something other than paying attention to Hannan.  I can go into ecstasies at how well Hannan speaks, but if more than 25% of my sample of his audience – his market – fails to be rapt we have another symptom that gives cause for concern.

Fifty years ago I devoured all the James Bond novels, and there was one recurrent detail in them that I have never forgotten. When describing the beauty of Bond girls, Ian Fleming always highlighted flaws. The nose was a little too straight, the eyes a little too far apart, etc. He had observed that desirability comes from imperfections. So what has this to do with Dan Hannan?

There is no doubt that Hannan has worked very hard on his public speaking, and continues to do so, but his mistake is that he is a perfectionist. The trouble with perfection is that it is flawless, sterile, boring. I prefer excellence. Most dictionaries declare the two words to be virtually synonymous, but I arbitrarily choose to make the distinction that excellence embraces the idiosyncrasies that make you unique and display your character – in short your flaws.

When striving for perfection you tend to be a slave to the nuance of every syllable, listen intently to yourself for the right modulation, etc. That is misdirected focus. You should be concentrating only on your message and whether the audience is getting it; and you should be enjoying the liberty of not giving a damn about yourself. When striving for perfection you don a speech-mode mask and give a performance, whereas the most engaging, persuasive and interesting you can be is your own, real, flawed self. That is true of everyone, but not everyone is already good enough to let go and unwind as much as Hannan could.

He doesn’t realize that some of his syllables and words are inaudible, because he can hear them. He can hear them because he is listening to himself. That is also symptomatic of his being a slave to perfection.

So what was this tweet that I mentioned at the end of my second paragraph? He was paying tribute to a mentor who had stopped him uttering ‘um’ and ‘er’. That set my alarm bells ringing, because I have satisfied myself over many years that audiences don’t ever notice such things unless you are boring them. And the converse is that if you obsess over that sort of detail there is a very good chance that you will bore them.

This speech is immensely important, brilliantly conceived, excellently reasoned, but delivered by one who is “as smooth as a kitten’s wrist”. Yes, I have described him that way before, and now I believe he would do himself a favour if he permitted some  unsmoothness to show. He can do it: he’s already looser on some of his video pieces to camera, but he can beneficially loosen further still.

Michael Ball: an actor speaks

The Oxford Union not only hosts debates but invites celebrities of all descriptions to come and speak.  Earlier this year Michael Ball was their guest.

I have yet to meet an actor that didn’t regard him or herself as a consummate public speaker and, truth to tell, good actors can deliver anything you give them; but a speech involves more than skilled delivery. It has to be created first, and that is where actors usually fall down. Michael Ball is a good actor: let us see how he fared here.

He is reading.

You don’t even have to watch to know. Look away and listen. You can hear the words go in through his eyes and out through his mouth, being processed en route for the purpose of performance but not being thought about. The thinking process took place when the words were written: it is not happening now. If you doubt me, listen at 1:33 when he misreads and – before he corrects himself – exactly reverses the meaning of a sentence. If he had been thinking about what he was saying he could not have made that mistake. It’s a good script, some of it is funny, but even when he is being serious and apparently speaking from the heart, he is actually speaking only from the script.

The script is a screen between him and his audience. His performance skill is considerable, but it doesn’t completely penetrate that screen.

Watch this and understand why my trainees all speak without notes. They don’t have to be as good as this at performing: they just need to be themselves.

Ball is nervous, and his nerves continue much longer than they need – again because he is using a script. That script/screen being in the way means he is never completely speaking with his audience, never completely engaging with them. It’s a performance, albeit a skillful one; but even a professional communicator will relax more quickly and thoroughly once he engages with his audience.

And there’s something else.

In Beyond the Fringe there was a legendary piano sketch by Dudley Moore in which he played a parody of a Beethoven Sonata. Apart from the comedy brilliance of his applying Beethovenesque variations to the theme of Colonel Bogey, there is the added joke that he cannot find an ending. For a minute and a half he goes round and round trying to get out of this thing. Michael Ball’s speech reminded me of that. In increasing despair I lost count of the number of times he could and should have just STOPPED.

For about five minutes he goes in circles past obvious exit doors but doggedly continuing to speak. It’s a classic error, and is just another reminder that with public speaking being good at delivering material is simply not enough.

Anthony Watts – a tale of two paces.

On 12 June, 2015, at the Tenth International Conference on Climate Change in Washington D.C. the Award for Excellence in Climate Science Communication was presented to Anthony Watts.

I need tell you nothing more about this because the award presentation was eloquently preceded by a speech from Tom Harris, Heartland Institute’s Executive Director, International Climate Science Coalition.

Harris has a very relaxed, user-friendly style of speaking. Yes he uses a script, but he piles bags of his own personality into the delivery. If he’d been a trainee of mine he wouldn’t need the script, and he wouldn’t – standing at the lectern – have joined in the applause for Watts. As I’ve said before in this blog that’s one of those rare things that feels right and looks wrong, and the microphone makes it sound wrong also. I’m being picky because this is a well conceived, warm and generous tribute to Watts.

Watts comes to the stage at the 7-minute mark and collects his award. He then gives us several minutes of thanks and tributes. Aside from his also applauding from the lectern, if you have to do an extended thankfest (and sometimes you do) this is the way to do it. There’s no shallow, Oscar-style stuff, thanking the family, the dog, and the teddy bear, these are all professional peer-to-peer tributes. Only the names are on his paper. The actual tributes are shot from the hip, with the sincerity that that implies.

At 11:10 he announces a new project. For a reason that will shortly become clear I want you to note the excellently measured pace with which he shoots this section from the hip.

At this conference he also delivered a talk.

He begins by announcing that there is a shortage of time, and then sets off like a rocket. Allow me to quote myself from a recent blog article

Speaking too quickly to save time is essentially futile. Let us look at the mechanics of it. The actual words are not articulated significantly faster: the speed is in the closing of the gaps between words, in particular the natural pauses between phrases and sentences. I reckon everyone who has ever edited speech-audio has tried to save time by closing these gaps, and we’ve all done it only once because we’ve learnt the painful lesson. It doesn’t work! It’s a mug’s game: you slave for hours trimming these things, turn around and find that you’ve saved just a few lousy seconds.

Never speak too fast in an attempt to save time: take out a sentence or two instead. Otherwise your words and sentences can tumble over each other faster than the listener can absorb them.

To save time Watts should have removed something. That would have been a hellishly difficult thing to do because this stuff is so important; but the importance of the information is why he should have trimmed something out. He is addressing an expert audience, so they’ll follow it because they probably already know it; but most of the value of this talk is in educating the world via publishing the video on line. The speed of his talking will turn people away, and squander a valuable opportunity to educate more of the world.

Anthony Watts at the beginning of this posting received an award for communication. Quite right: his online contribution is matchless. In accepting the award he showed how well he can communicate with a live audience. And now he clearly shows how much his communication skill can be damaged by the apparently small mistake of having too much to say in too little time.

An important lesson for us all.