Jay Lehr sits on no fence

On 29 October the Science Director of the Heartland Institute, Jay Lehr, delivered a talk at the AM 560 Freedom Summit in Chicago. He was always going to be forthright: his published headline reads, “There is not now, nor has there ever been, any scientific evidence proving mankind has affected the climate on a global scale.”

With my trainees, apart from nuanced subtleties concerning structure and so on, I drum into them that ultimately they simply need their audience to leave the venue knowing absolutely and unambiguously what you intended them to hear. Here we have an example of a speaker successfully aiming at precisely that target.

Ah yes! His opening reminds us that he is speaking a week and a half before the US Presidential Election.

I have made the point previously in this blog when the subject of global warming came up that sceptics tend to show their workings, and alarmists tend to show their skill at name-calling. Having covered speeches from both sides of the debate, I have found conformity to this rule to have been astonishingly consistent. It was this that first raised my suspicion of global warming. I remember noticing several decades ago in the school playground that name-calling was a substitute for reason, and I have found that true in a wide variety of fields ever since.

Lehr shows his workings. He churns out statistics almost incontinently. They tend often to be ballpark statistics because he is shooting from the hip, and in this setting statistical precision is not particularly relevant. He is practising a technique that I call tactical omission. By making assertions without always substantiating them, he gets more of them in; likewise statistics that are broadly correct. There is a Q&A session after this talk, and if anyone wants to challenge anything he has said, you can bet every thread on your shirt that he can substantiate his assertions and fine down statistics to several decimal places, but he’ll be doing it in the questioner’s time not his own. It’s a useful tactic.

Also it becomes clear that he is talking to an audience that is not overburdened with scientific knowledge, so his arguments and parallels are couched always in lay terms. Scientists might be tempted to scorn this speech for this reason, but I wonder whether they’d dare debate him face to face?

This is another facet of the climate issue that attracted my attention some years ago. Sceptics repeatedly challenge alarmists to debates, and alarmists use an hilarious range of excuses to duck out. What has kept the ridiculous thing going, even though a baby born the last time there was any warming is now old enough to vote, is political pressure and the lobbying of vested interests on a scale that is eye-watering. The climate change industry is one of the largest in the world, but even if the planet does warm it will be infinitely cheaper to cope with it when the time comes than to pretend that we can do anything about it now. Never has there been so much energy worthy of a better cause.

Since this speech the US have elected their new President, and he has indicated that he plans to dismantle the American contribution to this industry. He doesn’t have to do much. If the taxpayer simply stops subsidising it, the industry will collapse on its own. Like many I am nervous of Trump, but if he finally lays this climate nonsense to rest posterity will bestow on his legacy plaudits more noble than anything Obama can claim. For instance it could unlock untold potential by awakening the sleeping giant that is Africa, kept sedated all this time by expensive energy.

Anyone who has followed the climate issue for any time will find little new in this speech, but I love the forcefulness with which he puts it across – not least in his exploding the preposterous 97% consensus fiction which never anyway withstood more than a few minutes examination. I see that he does a lot of speaking. I’m not a bit surprised.

Tommy Robinson and free speech

I read on line an article written by Douglas Murray for the Gatestone Institute. It unfavourably compared the official treatment of Tommy Robinson and Anjem Choudary. I found it interesting because, whatever you may think of either of these gentlemen, the one absolute concerning the law is that everyone should be equal under it. This article suggests that in some respects they are not.

Within days I spotted that Tommy Robinson had delivered a talk at the Oxford Union, and although this happened in November 2014 I had not picked it up at the time. I felt rather ashamed of myself, because as a fervent supporter of free speech I like to support it by heralding it on this blog. Well, better late than never …

There was also a Q&A session, but you won’t find it here, Robinson holds the floor for this entire video. Occasionally you overhear protest chanting from outside the hall, but inside the audience listens in decorous silence.

Let me get the rhetor stuff out of the way. Robinson could structure a little more clearly, but otherwise this is what public speaking should be. It is sometimes slightly garbled, but transparently sincere. He shoots from the hip a message that he wants to get across, and he sets about it without affectation or pretence. You can disagree with every word he utters, but I don’t believe that you can justifiably accuse him of hiding behind a false persona.

I tip my hat to the Oxford Union for this dramatic and excellent example of free speech. Providing a platform for views you might expect to find abhorrent, is by far the best way to challenge them.

I don’t think I have anything to add. I simply commend the whole talk. You may hate him throughout; you may not. Either way, I suspect you will come to understand better. I did.

The Q&A is pretty good too.

Matt Ridley reads royally

On 17 October, at the Royal Society in London, Matt Ridley gave a talk that was widely publicised both before and after. Everyone knew that he would be discussing climate change, and adopting a position which would challenge much of its orthodoxy.

This should not be out of the ordinary at the Royal Society which was founded for the purpose of sceptically examining and debating matters scientific, and indeed has a motto – Nullius in Verba – which exhorts it not to take anyone’s word for anything. The trouble is that in recent years the Society had appeared to have become politicised into toeing the establishment line on climate change, and showing to any dissent a level of intolerance which shamed its distinguished history. Therefore the news that this talk would be happening was greeted with eyebrows either raised in surprised and delighted approval, or lowered into shocked disapproval, depending upon the political persuasion of their owner.

Ridley is preceded by Lord Lawson, chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who first offers well-deserved thanks to the Society for having withstood pressure from “fanatics” in holding this event. Then he introduces Ridley, describing him as “the leading scientific writer in the world today”. Ridley’s flattered astonishment at this description is fun to behold. Lawson also describes this talk as a ‘lecture’. This is a significant word because it literally means a reading, and a reading is indeed what we get.

I know, because he has been on this blog twice before – here and here, that Ridley absolutely does not need a script when he speaks. I tell my trainees that those who have learnt to speak without script or notes, but occasionally have to use them, treat those two impostors just the same, coping much better than those who clutch their paper like a drowning man does driftwood.

Ridley could easily deliver this talk with only occasional glances at his script, but he chooses slavishly to read it. Let’s look at the likely reasons.

Timing. It looks as if this is a 40-minute slot. Ridley actually speaks for a little over 36 minutes, allowing enough time for Lawson’s introduction and also a brief word of thanks and conclusion from Benny Peiser. This is courteous, professional and rare. There are some who could hit that sort of precision without the aid of a script, and Ridley may be one of them, but he has other reasons to read.

His slides. Working with a script enables him to change his slides bang on cue every time. It is safer and more precise.

The Press. You may think that I’m about to point out how, with this controversial subject, he has to watch his wording very carefully to minimise his exposure of being vilified by unfriendly reporters, and obviously there is something in that, but actually the issue is far more mundane. With a speech whose profile is as high as this, it’s a fairly safe bet that the press will have been given a transcript. Therefore he has to stick very close to that transcript. Like verbatim.

I suspect he would have preferred not to have read from a script. It robs him of spontaneity, and makes him prey to those rather lame stumblings that you can get when you read aloud. But he really has no choice.

I usually recommend just one technical adjustment to his modus operandi. Rather than turn over each page of the script, it is a little safer to slide each sheet to one side. This is the system habitually used by Chancellors of the Exchequer for their Budget speeches. It is more hazardous beforehand, because the sheets cannot be fastened together by anything more permanent than a paperclip (so you must number your pages), but provided the surface of the lectern is big enough it tends to be a smoother process. Nevertheless from what I have seen of Ridley, I suspect that he uses his system out of choice rather than ignorance of the alternative.

This lecture is historic, being a rare exception to the one-sided barrage of indoctrination that for years we have been fed by the media. It took place very much at the point of a sword, with alarmists fighting ferociously to try to prevent it. Benny Peiser, in his short concluding address, expresses the hope that it might pave the way for an actual grownup debate between adherents of the opposing climate change opinions. What a wonderful thought!

I shall not hold my breath. For years alarmists have fought to suppress debate, offering not arguments but name-calling. Nevertheless we can hope.

Alex Newman rises above his errors.

On 2 November the Heartland Institute, streamed live a talk by Alex Newman which he titled Crimes of the Educators. This is also the title of a book he co-authored with the late Samuel Blumenfeld. If you follow the book’s link to Amazon you will find an exceptional stream of positive reviews.

Lennie Jarratt does the introduction, and deserves a medal. This video was originally live-streamed, which is not that much different from being on TV. Broadcasters are ruled by the clock, and this broadcast has started late. For two-and-three-quarter minutes he takes his audience on a tour of the Institute and its works, delivering a laudable commercial even on the room in which the audience is seated. At 2:45 he finally announces that the speaker has arrived.

This is every speaker’s nightmare, and I put my trainees through it – just keep talking till something over which you have no control happens. In fact I suspect that the speaker had actually arrived before Jarratt began, but Jarratt was giving him a chance to compose himself and load his deck of slides. Nevertheless I tip my hat to him on a sterling piece of filling-in. Newman actually begins speaking at 3:36 and finishes at 34:36, the rest being Q&A.

Half-a-minute into his talk we are faced with his having committed the first of two fundamental speaker’s errors. His slides are smothered in verbiage, and are therefore in constant competition with him for the audience’s attention. Someone needs to take him aside and educate him on this.

(Mind you: simultaneously I find myself tipping my hat to the Heartland Institute whose staging of events and whose attendant technology I have had need in the past to criticise. The split-screening that they use for showing both the speaker and his slides is truly excellent.)

The other fundamental error begins as a suspicion in my mind, and is later confirmed by the speaker. This half-hour talk is a cut-down of a longer one. This is a classic mistake: always start with a short talk and expand when necessary – never the other way around. I could keep you here for hours, explaining the principles behind this rule, but I’ll spare you.

So there he is, rather hyper having rushed here from his last engagement because these book-promotion schedules are notoriously tight, struggling to cut a longer presentation down (and do it on the hoof), working with far too many slides and far too many words on each one.  And yet…

He makes a reasonable fist of it, helped by his being a natural communicator and also having a very powerful message.

I have to admit that for the first few minutes I had him down as a loony conspiracy-theorist, but his documented statistics concerning levels of literacy more than a hundred years ago compared with today shook me to the core. Education standards in the USA really do seem to have travelled southwards at a frightening pace, and a great deal of what he describes is echoed in the UK. Furthermore you do not need conjecture to find deliberate intent on the part of the architects of this trend because that again is documented.

Why does this theme keep cropping up in the activities of unaccountable intellectuals? They embark on noble-sounding projects which always end in tears, but not being accountable they are free to plough on with their ghastly mistakes. The one academic discipline they either do not study, or they studiously ignore, is history. How else would they never learn? How else would they ruin whole societies with their well-meaning but imbecilic ideas?

Or are they really well-meaning? Do we need to examine motives? When you see destruction on this level, that the rest of us could not have achieved more effectively if we’d tried, you have to give space to the possibility that they tried.

As a speech this is abysmally badly composed, but the importance of the message contrives to over-ride that. As often happens on this blog I find myself itching both to read the book and to take this man on one side for a few hours to teach him how to apply his message to this medium.

Sam Harris does some shredding

In 2011  the University of Notre Dame in Indiana conducted a ‘God Debate’ between Dr William Lane Craig and Dr Sam Harris.

If you’ve a mind to, you can watch the whole thing here. I should probably warn you that it is more than two hours long, but in my opinion it is worth every second. Some years ago I covered here in some depth a series of speeches that made up an Oxford Union God debate. In terms of profundity this at Notre Dame makes that at Oxford look like a squabble in a Sunday School.

As a seeker after truth who cleaves to the mantra that emerged in this blog from the mouth of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “I do not know”, I find these discussions fascinating. I instinctively recoil from fundamentalism in all its guises, but I find listening to fundamentalists sometimes triggers creative streams of thought. Perhaps that is one reason for me to be such an uncompromising believer in free speech.

I prefer not to try to analyse two hours of deep discussion; but it happens that on YouTube someone has lifted one of Sam Harris’ speeches from the debate, and has posted it under the heading of Sam Harris demolishes Christianity. Shall we see?

Though quietly and soberly uttered, this is a powerful 11 minutes. It gives you some idea of the quality of the arguments that you will meet in the rest of the debate.

To me his most obvious weakness, and it seems always to occur in discussions of this nature, is in conflating religions with spirituality. They are not, despite what all religions claim, the same. The former are manmade attempts to codify the latter, and that process necessarily limits it by binding it into a particular shape. They each claim that theirs was a divinely inspired manmade shape, but then they would.

Harris does indeed here make a very effective job of shredding Christianity as it is taught – as the video claims – but he is attacking merely that manmade shape. To my mind he lays not a scratch on spirituality in general.

For instance let’s look at a small section that begins at the 50 second mark. This is the same tired argument that Stephen Fry offered here. Imagine a loving father standing at a kerb, holding the hand of his three-year-old toddler. On the other side of the road is an ice-cream kiosk, and the toddler wants ice-cream. The father will not allow it, perhaps because the road is too busy to cross safely, perhaps because the toddler has some sort of medical disorder causing an ice-cream intolerance. We can imagine very many legitimate reasons for the father to withhold this desired treat, but the 3-year-old cannot. At that moment, as far as the toddler is concerned, the father is behaving unkindly. The toddler is not in possession of the bigger picture.

If there were any spiritual entity, of whatever description, being the cause and the root of all existence – let’s, for the sake of argument, call it God though in truth it could be very different from any God that any religion has described – then it’s safe to assume that it would possess a picture bigger than ours. Now Harris’ argument in this small section, and Stephen Fry in that interview, sound like that toddler in ignorance throwing a tantrum. Yes, I am conscious that deprivation of ice-cream doesn’t have an obvious equivalence to thousands of deaths from a tsunami, but the abstract principle still holds. Now we see through a glass darkly.

This speech is a good appetiser for the whole debate, which I found deeply absorbing. Does it go anywhere towards crystallising my ill-, perhaps I should say un-, defined spirituality? No, but the seeking after truth is what matters. Like André Gide I mistrust any who claim to have found it.

John Bird is magnificent

In October 2015, the founder of The Big Issue was elevated to the House of Peers.  He is John Bird, and in February 2016 he made his maiden speech.

In future, if anyone asks me what I do, I think I might refer them to this speech. Acquaintances, relatives, even quite close friends seem to have a vague notion that I earn my crust by polishing up people’s accents, or getting them to stand ‘correctly’ and orate. Anyone with whom I have worked on public speaking will greet such thoughts with the same wry smile, because actually I bully people into being themselves. There’s a little more to it, for instance in terms of structuring your material for optimum digestibility for your audience and optimum memorability for yourself etc., but the foundation is always being yourself.

I tear scripts out of their hands because that bloody paper is a screen between them and their audience, but also because it is a screen between them and themselves.

I repeatedly tell my trainees that the most engaging, compelling and persuasive they can be is when they are being themselves, warts and all, and speaking spontaneously.

Yes, there is such a thing as appropriateness; but once a speaker has learnt to come out from behind one of those ghastly but ubiquitous self-imposed masks, they are better equipped to steer an appropriate course while still being themselves.

Watch this speech, and see what I am talking about. For a start there’s no paper: the words he speaks are always the words that come to him at the time – genuinely spontaneous. He pushes the boundary of appropriateness by describing someone (affectionately) as a bugger; but he doesn’t sleep-walk into it because a little earlier he  correctly referred to a fellow Peer as “the noble Lady”. He knows what he is doing, makes his own policy decisions, and trusts himself to speak spontaneously.

I have had people challenging my position by stating that pre-scripting a speech enables a better choice of words and phrasing. My reply tends to refer to round objects.

Listen to Bird, shooting from the hip from his bald opening to his courteous close, and you will hear for instance an elegant and lengthy anaphora (“when I was…”) beginning at 3:40, and there are more such. You will hear very accomplished comedy timing. You will hear a wide variety of rhythm, pacing and vocal tone. You will, in short, hear an exemplary piece of public speaking: well conceived, well structured, well delivered.

Yes you will also hear stumbles, slips of the tongue, and other mistakes – but who cares? Listen to someone reading a script and you will likewise hear all those things, but they have a different, lamer, more toe-curling quality than from spontaneous speech.

The most important people at any speech are in the audience. We can hear their appreciation from time to time, but there is one who is almost constantly in view. I refer to the Noble Lady we can see over his right shoulder. I wish I knew who she was because she has a wonderfully expressive face. He can’t see her, but he has her in the palm of his proverbial hand. Never once does she doubt his sincerity.

What a magnificent speaker!

Don Tapscott talks freedom

Recently published on YouTube by TED is a talk by Canadian Don Tapscott. It is entitled How the blockchain is changing money and business.

Cryptocurrency fascinates me.  It is dragging commerce into something approaching the modern age, and bypassing the orthodox banking system in general and central banks in particular that have made such a pig’s ear of matters in recent years. Also, because it can’t control it, the establishment hates cryptocurrency which is another factor in its favour. I went and watched this talk for reasons that have nothing to do with my work.

Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never very far away, and immediately I am conscious that Tapscott is effectively hiding quite a serious hump, though it lasts barely a minute. Nerves connected with public speaking are unpredictable because they are largely irrational (though being irrational doesn’t make them any less real). Tapscott has done a huge amount of speaking, so why should he be nervous? Because it is irrational.

I always keep to myself the subtler manifestations of nerves, and I have been accused of being miserly with my professional secrets. There is something in that, but my main reason goes much further. The most effective antidote to speakers’ nerves is a relaxed audience. Therefore if the speaker successfully hides nerves, the audience relaxes so the speaker relaxes. If audiences became too conscious of subtler symptoms they would be more difficult to relax, and that benign circle would be broken. I’ll keep my secrets on behalf of all speakers and all audiences.

Shortly after the first minute has passed he is more relaxed, and when he explains the double-spend problem at 1:32 he gets a nice little laugh from the audience. That’s two points to him: one for relaxing them and one for explaining so clearly. The two are totally intertwined.  That hurdle, however, is as nothing compared with some of the concepts he still has to explain.

I must say that he makes a pretty good fist of them. There are a couple of moments that I find myself asking “Wha…?” but in the main he keeps me with him, and I feel that his audience in the hall likewise understands enough to get a pretty good idea of what this is all about.

One of the strongest messages I receive is that every person operating with cryptocurrency is freely dealing with every other person, and the entire process is independent of any controlling body.

And then, beginning around 9:25, he says something that stuns me. While bemoaning a world of increasing levels of all manner of regrettable things like anger, extremism, protectionism, etc. he cites the latest example as being Brexit. I am astonished that someone as smart as he has fallen for that sort of lame EU propaganda. Has it not dawned on him that Brexit is another example – like Blockchain – of people scrambling out from under the dictatorial control of a distant and unaccountable central authority? Is it really so extremist to want your vote to mean something? He is making exactly the same idle mistake as the person who said to me that Bitcoin was all about arms sales and organised crime. He should seek to smell the coffee on this matter. Ignorance is not necessarily his fault, but …   Oh, let’s move on.

Time will tell whether Blockchain really is the future of commerce. In my time I have seen too many cases of brilliant ideas being the vanguard that got swallowed up by even better imitators to assume that this is home and dry, but…

I do like any blow for freedom – which is why I voted Brexit.