Every week Britain’s Sunday Telegraph includes a column by Christopher Booker. He is regularly described as a contrarian, and his often ferocious campaigns include attacking the EU, the secrecy surrounding the British Family Court system, and imbecilic officialdom in general. He spurns the shallow fashions of the intelligentsia and gives the impression of using very thorough research, which is why his opponents tend to restrict themselves to argumentum ad hominem attacks. They seldom prevail if the argument comes down to hard evidence.
Perhaps his chief target in recent years has been global warming alarmism, so I was not surprised to see his name crop up amongst speakers at the same Heartland Institute International Conference on Climate Change in March 2009 that provided this blog recently with a speech by Professor Richard Lindzen.
His introduction is charmingly and self-deprecatingly provided by Dr John Dunn.
Booker begins at 1:45 with a mildly humorous opening. This is good: never try to be too funny too soon unless you are a professional comedian. He then briefly speaks spontaneously and very personally about the conference being peopled with those whose work he admires. And then…
He picks up a sheaf of papers and proceeds to read. My heart sinks. Booker writes well; and most good writers are too restricted to thinking – as it were – through their pen. A speaker needs to think through his tongue, because written English is different from spoken English. Booker, in short, is a talking head for the same reason as we discussed in the case of Brendan O’Neill. This is stuff that would be interesting to read but which is stilted and tedious to listen to.
There are a few blessed occasions that his eyes lift to the audience and he permits himself an aside; but still his script retains overall control. And that is not the only reason for my heart sinking.
The main body of his speech seems to consist principally of his recounting the history of the global warming scare from the time that the global cooling scare lost political traction. I suspect that this audience was not only sympathetic to his argument but populated almost entirely by people who knew this story every bit as well as he. It’s never easy to find a new slant on an argument when you are pushing against an open door, but that is what you really have to do.
At the outset it looks as if he has solved this problem. He begins talking about the book he co-wrote with Richard North, Scared to Death, in which they analysed the extraordinarily consistent pattern in which successive political/pseudo-scientific scares lived their brief lives, rising up and falling away before being buried and forgotten – scares like bird-flu, Y2K, BSE, etc. He does continue by showing how in its beginnings the global warming scare followed the same overall pattern, causing me to look forward to his restricting himself to that theme, exploring and explaining the extraordinary longevity of this particular scare. How, for instance, are its adherents managing to fight an increasingly bizarre rearguard action even though we have seen more than one and a half decades of the planet refusing to follow any of the projections of the computer models? Why are schools and museums still allowed to poison our children’s minds with this garbage? Is it merely that too much political capital has been invested in it? Admittedly this speech dates from 2009 when many more people than today were still paying lip-service to it, but the game was up even then – which is why Copenhagen collapsed.
Instead, as I mentioned earlier, he gets bogged down too much in a history that in this company is commonplace.
And he’s reading it.
And what is worse he’s accelerating.
At the 16-minute mark he is beginning to gabble and tumble over his words; and at 16:53 we learn why. Someone tells him from the floor that he has five more minutes, and he exclaims with surprise that he had thought he was already over-running. What does this tell us? There is no clock. What does it cost conference organisers to place a clock, working and correct, within sight of the platform? This was the same year that Richard Lindzen had microphone problems, and after this blog’s critique of that speech Jim Lakely, Director of Communications for the Heartland Institute, posted a comment saying that their technology was better at subsequent conferences. I trust this includes their installing a clock.
If Booker had stuck to a study of the mechanics of the scare, exploring the similarities and differences with previous scares, and if he had learnt how to structure the speech so that he could shoot the whole thing from the hip, this speech would have been infinitely better. It deserved to be, because it was important.
Regarding the “mechanics of the scare”, a few years ago I stumbled upon a book called Panic Attacks, by Bartholomew and Evans. From its cover it appeared to be a coffee-table book; but inside it covered in chronological order several scares over the centuries. It made some attempt at finding a common thread which might help explain how they keep coming up and fading. I’ve never heard anyone actually talk about the psychology of these scare campaigns: they are usually promoting them. Perhaps saying that there is nothing to worry about is boring, so we gravitate towards listening to interesting scary speakers.
I mentioned (above) the book that Booker and North wrote, Scared to Death. I’ve now turned that title into a hyper-link to where you can get an e-copy of it from Amazon. You’ll find that they analyse not only the mechanics of scares but also the mob psychology.