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.

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