Scott Atlas “friendly for a change”

In February Hillsdale College, which more and more not only supplies speeches for me to examine but also appears to be an oasis of sense in a desert of academic lunacy, hosted a talk by Dr Scott Atlas.

Dr Atlas is preceded by two introductions, or more accurately an introduction and a speech. The preliminary welcome and introduction is, I believe, from Timothy Caspar. It is clear and workmanlike, though read. He is followed at 1:55 by the President of the college, Larry P. Arnn.

I like this man. I like his style and approach, his banter with his colleagues and assistants, his apparent approach to running a college, and of course his relaxed through clear shooting-from-the-hip speaking style. I also happen to share his views on most things. All this is just as well because his introduction is a mini-speech, and not so mini being more than a quarter of an hour long. He doesn’t actually get to the matter of Dr Atlas till ten minutes in, but it doesn’t matter because what precedes that is so absorbing. And the actual introduction, when it comes, appears beautifully unorthodox till you realise it’s actually leading up to the presentation of an award.

Atlas begins at 18:45 and during his opening preamble he tells the audience “It’s great to be in a crowd that is friendly for a change”.

He is script-bound which I regret but understand. He almost certainly believes, as do many, that a script ensures that you tell your story more precisely and concisely; and that therefore it is safer. I don’t share that belief, but can understand that in his circumstances he has become seriously risk-averse. This is a man under persecution.

As his story unfolds his passion builds, first below the surface but eventually becoming overt. He is angry, and in danger of falling into a trap that we’ve met before… speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret... and his story makes it very clear why he is angry. Nevertheless he keeps his passion in check enough to remain coherent while making it clear to us that he is accustomed to having this message resisted ferociously.

I’ve been around the block a few times – I believe I am officially classified as ‘elderly’ – and there are a few reliable guidelines I’ve learnt over the years. One of them is that when any government policy receives bipartisan support it will probably fail the sniff-test. A close relative of that, originally learnt in the school playground, is that when someone makes a statement and then refuses to argue it and instead resorts to name-calling it is a safe bet that they have no argument and are lying through their teeth. Combine those two guidelines, in fact reinforce mere name-calling with government edicts by mainstream-media-muscle and police activity, and you have something dangerous. We have seen such a scenario being acted out during this pandemic and this is exactly what Dr Atlas is describing.

It is a hugely important speech and warrants close attention. It ends at 43:45, and shortly before the end his demeanour relaxes as the friendliness of the audience cheers him. In his closing he actually pays tribute to precisely this.

The speech is followed by Q&A; and this is when he really relaxes, raises his eyes to the audience, is not one jot less coherent now that he is speaking spontaneously, and becomes even cheerful. One of the early questions enables him to explain that his last words of the speech, “Rise up!” did not mean street rebellion but applying electorate pressure to political and official representatives across the field from local to federal.

I commend the entire video.

Kristi Noem and the power of freedom.

Hillsdale College has featured on this blog in the past and, my having looked down their list of recent speakers, will undoubtedly feature again. Last October, they invited the Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem to talk about Liberty and the Pandemic.

Since I first discovered this speech and had decided to critique it here, Noem has faced wide criticism for refusing to sign a bill that she had previously expressed herself “excited about”. This is a bill to prevent biological males from competing in women’s sports. Quite often this sort of story turns out to have involved a piece of proposed legislation that contained a political trap, so to learn more I found this short interview that you may want to watch.

For the moment though we are concentrating on this speech …

The introduction is made by Larry Arnn, the President of the college, and it is an exceedingly good one. Being himself a proper speaker he shoots it from the hip, includes some well-received humour including in-jokes that only his audience will fully understand, and makes him an excellent warm-up for the top of the bill. He includes one particular sentence which should belong in all treasuries of aphorisms “expert knowledge is narrow knowledge”.

Noem begins at 2:50, opening with some spontaneous personal observations. Being spontaneous they are shot from the hip, and being shot from the hip they are spontaneous. Here she is speaking at the top of her game. I use that phrase, “top of her game” not to highlight great oratory, because her delivery is relatively quiet and restrained, but because her sincerity is brilliantly transparent.

Shortly after the five-minute mark she swings into her prepared speech. Now her eyes periodically drop to the lectern. She’s using a script, or at least notes, and just a little of the edge comes off her game.

I used to join in an online group of speaking trainers, but I soon jumped out because it emerged that they all espoused the fallacy that a speaker has to have a script, and were not prepared even to listen to a contrary view. Regular readers of the blog know that I am fiercely of the opinion that paper reduces a speaker’s effectiveness, and that everyone is capable of throwing their paper away. They merely need to know how to structure their material to make paper redundant and also to have it proved to them that they can – and do – speak better without it.

Noem uses paper, but so well that its damage is very slight. She merely glances at it from time to time, making me feel that it’s there more as a comfort blanket than a source of material. How I wish she’d let me take it from her. She would learn the power of another type of freedom.

With all that this is a very fine speech. She uses a pleasing pattern of pretending that she, the audience, and the hall are all in South Dakota and that she is welcoming them. In fact her whole speech and her demeanour seem carry a warm welcome. It’s very effective.

Her speech finishes at 17:10 when she goes over to Q&A.

The Cambridge lockdown debate

On 28 January, The Cambridge Union conducted a live-streamed debate on the motion, “This House Believes Lockdown Was A Mistake“. The speakers were Sir Graham Brady, Laura Spinney, Richard Tice, Phil Whitaker, Toby Young and Layla Moran.

This blog having brought me to the attention of people overseas, I began a few years ago delivering distance coaching via video link. In the early days it was rather clunky, but trial, error and perseverance prevailed. Though passionately involved with my work I was not getting any younger, and I fondly imagined that virtually trotting around the world delivering speaking training from my study was a reasonable recipe for semi-retirement. Then came Covid and lockdowns.

Somehow word quickly spread that I was a specialist in delivering training by video link and my semi-retirement got busy. When it’s distance training it makes little difference if the person on the other end is in East Africa or West Sussex. Also delivering training via a computer screen nurtured a byproduct skill that was useful now that people wanted to learn how to deliver speeches via a computer screen. There’s quite a list of guidelines, but I’ll restrict here to the essential three.

  • Framing: arrange yourself and the camera so that your face is mainly in the top third of the screen.
  • Lighting: in front of you not behind.
  • Eyes: ay there’s the rub, because in video-link eye-contact is an illusion. If you look at their eyes you appear not to. Look at the camera.

So firstly let’s see how the speakers did on those principles.

Framing: all fairly good, though Spinney and Young were the best. Whitaker would have been ok if he’d sat up, but he looked as if he’d crawled into frame.

Lighting: Moran was startlingly brilliant. The others were good except Spinney whose lighting couldn’t have been worse. I wonder whether she is shy. (I’m not joking: I work often with bright and successful people who are shy. Intelligence and shyness dwelling in the same person is a miserable combination for them.)

Eyes: Sir Graham, script-bound, is conforming to the politician’s habit of reading and looking up periodically at the audience. His assumption is that the audience is on the screen, so we never get his eyes. Spinney is speaking spontaneously and extremely well, but the light is so bad that I can’t really see her eyes. Tice, script-bound, is using the same routine as Sir Graham, except better because when he looks up he looks at the camera. Whitaker’s eyes are all over the place: script, screen, the wall, barely the camera. He does himself no favours as the resultant effect is perceived insincerity. Young is shooting from the hip, with eyes locked firmly on the camera. Moran’s eyes are locked on and she is so slick that, reinforced by other symptoms, I suspect autocue.

Briefly, because this is already getting long, I will address some of what was said. Sir Graham was not just the first but the last to speak, and he accurately summed up a general feeling that had pervaded both sides of this debate. The first lockdown may have been justified because of the dearth of data at the time, but the subsequent ones indicate at best a failure. He reasons and argues very well, as befits an experienced politician.

Laura Spinney speaks with us (that italicised preposition is one of my hobby horses). It’s an excellent skill which makes the hearer want to listen. Apart from the stygian darkness, this is my joint favourite speech.

Richard Tice, has well-marshalled arguments that show their workings – and the workings include some explosive revelations. Being script-bound he sadly loses much of his relationship with his audience, and that isn’t helped by his adopting a phoney, am-dram, emotive tone.

Phil Whitaker begins by telling us what Covid 19 is. It seems not to have dawned on him that over the past year we have kind of gathered all that stuff that he wastes valuable time telling us. In that pointless preamble he implies that the virus is novel in that it can sometimes cause no symptoms. How does he know that is novel? How often has there been a government project to mass-test perfectly healthy people for signs of an infection? “Asymptomatic” surely means “healthy”.

Laurence J. Peter‘s second most famous pronouncement, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret” nearly applies to Toby Young’s contribution. Having spent months compiling a huge assembly of competing expert opinions on this matter, along with mountains of data, he has formed a view and is able to dispense with a script and speak straight to the camera. Arguments backed up with facts, figures, and quotes from peer-reviewed papers are fired in volleys straight at us. He does get a little too worked up towards the end, nearly causing his case to unravel, but he just manages to hold it together. It’s compulsive watching.

Layla Moran’s advent is startling. Production values including the lighting are brilliant. It’s almost too good. I have in the past had occasion to warn in this blog against perfectionism because if you smooth away every edge you risk sterilising the product. In this case, despite admiring those production values I dislike the speech because of the data torturing. If you quote bald numbers to promote a case, without comparing them to some sort of control, you are merely decorating a shop window. Her opening salvo is cheap and unworthy. All that said, I do admire the elegance of the anadiplosis that begins at 1:04:05.

For the record, the Proposition won the debate.

Jonathan Sumption’s coherent sense

People are not making speeches at the moment, for reasons I don’t need to explain. For this blog I can mine reserves of historic speeches, and I have done so, but part of the interest I get from critiquing speeches is to learn what views and arguments people are currently promoting.

On the other hand people are being interviewed. The essential difference with an interview is that the speaker is fed questions which dictate the direction of the conversation; and it is a very large part of the public speaking skill to address the direction your conversation would have taken had the audience been able to dictate it.

Lord Sumption, erstwhile Supreme Court Justice, has made no secret of his disapproval of the government’s policies concerning Covid 19, and here is an interview on the subject. It was broadcast in May of this year.

I’ll admit that I did have an actual speech that Sumption had made a few years ago, but I decided against covering it because the subject matter was way out of date and because to my intense irritation he slavishly read every syllable of the wretched thing.

You will see that I have supplied a link to that discarded speech in order that students of public speaking can see for themselves that, by reading it, Sumption made himself not a jot more articulate than he is being here in this interview, while sacrificing a huge portion of the perceived sincerity that spontaneity would have granted. But back to this interview …

What would be beyond belief had we not experienced it is that this interview, and Sumption’s excellently articulated arguments in it, were broadcast half a year ago and politicians are still pursuing the same asinine policies. How dare they have the impertinence to arrogate the right to consider Christmas to be within their gift!

It is not only disgraceful it is politically foolish. The arguments they promote in the name of “science” have become visibly and risibly threadbare and widely debunked by substantial scientific authority. The various degrees of lockdown have done manifestly more damage, not only culturally, socially and economically, but even medically, than the coronavirus ever could. This is vandalism conducted behind a smokescreen of a disease whose puny fatality rate is losing ground to that of hay fever.

The trouble with official idiocy on this scale is that conspiracy theories take hold. When no one is capable of being quite this stupid the only apparent explanation is that there is something else going on. And there are some very plausible and alarming explanations being aired which, if they are only slightly true, suggest that the people concerned are dangerous lunatics.

America’s Frontline Doctors heard

On 27 July, on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, a group of white-coated people gathered to conduct a press conference. They called themselves America’s Frontline Doctors, and their videoed presentation was introduced by Congressman Ralph Norman from South Carolina. Within a handful of hours the video had gone viral, and within twenty-four hours it had been banned by social media companies.

Have the cretins who order these bans never heard of the Streisand Effect? The immediate impact of the banning is to invite the question “why?”, and in searching for an answer to “why” far more people go out of their way to listen than would otherwise have done. I am one of them.

Mark Zuckerberg, in answer to a question at a Congressional hearing, said

We do prohibit content that will lead to imminent risk of harm…

Sounds reasonable, but who decides? I am prepared to believe that there is a Facebook medical panel. I am unable to list any of its members, but I am able to list the doctors in this video.


Ralph Norman hands over to Dr Simone Gold. We later hear from Dr Bob Hamilton, Dr Stella Immanuel, Dr James Todaro, and Dr Joseph Ladapo. They are worth hearing, making “why?” even more of a conundrum.

I spent a little time searching for doctors who had arguments to gainsay the ones in this video, and merely found several people targeting these doctors with argumentum ad hominem. I also found several more doctors saying very much the same thing as these.

Furthermore, I found this short video concerning the infamous article in The Lancet which was pulled only a few days after publication.

Nothing that I found proved that the doctors in the video (shooting all their speeches from the hip by the way) are right or that they are wrong, but it did suggest that there is an important debate to be had on the matter. It is always foolish not to pay close attention to information coming to you from the coalface, and even more foolish to act to silence it.

So finding myself still asking “why?” I ask myself Cui Bono? – who benefits? The only answer I can find is anyone who stands to gain from extending the crisis or from producing another prevention or cure and, in view of the medical, social and economic costs of this pandemic in the mean time, there are no pretty answers to that.

P.S. On 6 August it emerged that both Facebook and Twitter had censored the following video on the grounds that it contained “false claims”. Again, who decides? Is their information superior to that available to POTUS?