Oliver Robinson: science and spirituality

On 5 July, 2018, at Swedenborg Hall in London, Dr Oliver Robinson launched his new book, Paths between Head and HeartIt is already available for pre-order, and will be released in the UK on 31 August and in the USA on 28 September.

Before we see Olly’s launch speech, and also in explanation of my using that diminutive of his name, I must declare an interest. Olly is my nephew and godson, I already have my copy of the book, and I’m enjoying reading it.

I find the subject matter so fascinating that it is a bit of a chore for me to wear my rhetor hat at all, but that’s what this blog is for so I’ll don it briefly.

He’s been here before, in April 2015. Apart from praising his overall speaking I got a little picky about over-use of visual slides, something that is widespread everywhere and almost universal in academe; and also I felt that he was trying to protect his nerves by adopting a persona mask which hid too much of his personality.

Here, he’s come out from behind any mask and is all the more engaging for it.

My guidance on any slide is that thinking it might add something is not enough: it should be included only if its absence would significantly impoverish that part of the speech. The danger of not following that principle is that you find yourself in competition with your own visuals. The editor of that video has limited our exposure to his slides, but I still think he has too many. (Speaking of editors, slides are very useful for hiding edit-points so his editor was probably grateful.)

There’s another factor here which I find interesting. I urge my trainees to speak with their audience, as opposed to at them. I also tell them that passion is worth buckets of technique. Here I am torn over whether his conveying his evident passion for the subject is causing him to lose some of the warmth that you get when you speak with the audience. It’s a balancing act, and the tightrope is very thin. I remind myself that he is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich, and that sort of lecturing tends to lean towards the at preposition to keep students paying attention. I’m in two minds.

On the other hand I am single-minded in wanting to discuss the subject matter of the talk and the book, because I find it fascinating.

On this blog I have covered several speeches from atheists, and I find it tedious that they persist in assuming atheism to be half of a binary choice, the other half being religion. That is intellectually idle: there is another choice. You can be spiritual without espousing a religion. In fact religions carry so much political and doctrinal baggage that their spiritual side gets easily overlooked.  Years ago on this blog I covered six adversarial speeches from an Oxford Union God Debate, and I don’t think the word ‘spirit’ came up once. All the atheists focussed on debunking the doctrine, and ignored the spiritual. They always seem to, and who’s to blame them when religions focus on doctrine also.

In September at Imperial College in London there will be an event consisting of a conversation between Alan Lightman and Richard Dawkins entitled Science and Religion – two truths or one? At a glance you might think they are covering the same ground as Olly, but they’re not. However interesting the event turns out to be that title assumes the same false binary choice and therefore signals a much narrower path.

Though I don’t see him often enough to sit and talk quietly I’ve known for some time of Olly’s interest in the relationship of science and spirituality. I have harboured an excitement to learn more of what he’s found. From this talk I expect to be in for a treat as I dig deeper into the book.

Oliver Robinson in speech mode

At Imperial College in London on 1 November 2014, Dr Oliver Robinson gave a talk on ‘Science and Spirituality’. He is an author, lecturing in psychology at Greenwich University. The subject matter here is for him a personal interest and sideline. I know this because I know him. He is my nephew.

You may think that our relationship would guarantee that he is a trainee of mine. Not so. He has never asked me for help in this field and I have always assumed that this was because he didn’t wish to bother me, or he felt that he was at least as good as, and probably better than, most people (which he is), or along the lines of that excellent rule – don’t try to teach your wife to drive. I was very eager to watch this talk.

He doesn’t bother with an opening beyond the standard “Tell them what you’re going to tell them”; and with only ten minutes for the talk I think he’s right. He also slips a minuscule piece of throw-away humour into the first few seconds, and correctly throws it away. This is good, though the opening goes on a little too long. Devices like that ‘hanging thread’ of the book that he will later tell us about really only work with longer speeches than this.

As a lecturer he has become expert at disguising his hump, but it’s still there (it is with everyone). The symptoms are tiny but unmistakable, and even quite late in this talk there are nerve symptoms. It is a pity that his conscientiousness is generating anxiety which in turn is throwing up a mask that hides his full personality. I call it Speech Mode, and its elimination is one of my first targets with my trainees. But let’s get to specifics concerning this talk.

He suffers from the almost universal malady of over-use of PowerPoint.

  • Slide 1 is the title of the talk – ok
  • Slide 2 is worse than redundant: if a slide bears the words that you’ve spoken or are speaking it doesn’t help. it is in direct competition with you. Lose it.
  • Slide 3  – ditto. It’s actually an extension of Slide 2.
  • Slide 4 – ditto, ditto.
  • Slide 5 is his re-seizing of that hanging thread, adding the image of the book to the rogue slide that has been extending all this while. That image is important: it should have a slide of its own and be Slide 2.
  • Slide 6 is a bookfest image. He shows four pairs of books which represent the remainder of his talk that essentially now becomes a bibliography.

With these books, all of which he commends, he shows that since the seventeenth century each of the books on science has a spiritual counterpart, and thus the two movements have progressed in parallel. It’s an interesting principle and suitably provocative in that it makes us keen to read all the books to sample the theory. I’ve a feeling we need to, because in just ten minutes Oliver is not really able to establish much, if any, linkage. Parallel, yes – but parallel lines never converge. To suggest complementarity we need convergence or linkage of some sort.

That said, his normal University work probably involves perhaps as much research guidance as actual teaching, so pointing audiences at books to read, and whetting their appetite to do so, would then be an essential skill.

But let’s get back to Oliver’s actual speaking skill. The two most important ingredients are there. He is very articulate and he has good command of the subject. A couple of things are getting in the way of his doing full justice to himself. He needs to be rid of that bloody paper. The script or notes in front of him are a constant impediment. He needs to learn how to structure a sufficiently secure mind-map that enables him safely to shoot the speech from the hip. He could do it easily. He has a shortage of fundamental inner confidence. He may tell me I’m wrong, and he certainly synthesizes confidence pretty effectively, but he is behind a speech-mode mask which is hiding much of the huge personality I know him to have. Sort out those two things and he’d fly. The natural ability is there: look at the excellence of timing that harvests from his audience a fine and deserved laugh at 10:00.

Could I make him fly? Yes, of course – easily. Would I if he asked? Yes, of course: he’s my Godson.

Richard Lindzen engages

In March 2009 in New York City, The Heartland Institute held their second International Conference on climate change. Among the climatologists, geophysicists, economists and practitioners of sundry other kindred sciences was Richard Lindzen, atmospheric physicist and Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He delivered this speech.

He was introduced by Joseph Bast, President and CEO of The Heartland Institute, who had a range of other announcements to make. That is why it is not till 7:04 that Lindzen begins.

Two or three months ago on this blog there was a period when every second posting would have me getting exercised about bad microphone technique causing popping. Here the phenomenon returns with a vengeance, though don’t look to me for signs of nostalgia.  I am slightly reassured that someone at least noticed, because at 7:55 a disembodied hand appears from the side to push the mics down, and Lindzen’s voice goes so quiet that cries from the audience cause him to bring them up again, making the popping even worse than before. Shortly afterwards an engineer, probably still trying to cure the problem, turns the volume right down; but this was never going to work: it just makes it more difficult to hear him. The cause is not volume but the tender bits of the microphone being assaulted by percussive columns of the speaker’s breath. Don’t speak into a microphone, speak across it.

(Isn’t it wonderful! That auditorium is lousy with scientific doctorates, but it apparently needed a mere rhetor to tell them how to make a microphone behave itself.)

He reads a script, which is a bit of a pity, though actually this is more the presentation of a paper than a speech.

Despite that and the popping, I found the speech fascinating. He strongly makes the point that global warming was never a scientific or even environmental issue but rather a political one. We have become accustomed, in the climate change argument, for academics to (ab)use their high-sounding titles as a licence loftily to wave away any dissent with cheap phrases like ‘anti-science’ rather than engaging with the arguments. Lindzen soberly engages with everything in sight using merciless rigour. Though it is very clear which side of the argument he favours, that does not stop him castigating his own side when their arguments have fallen short of the intellectual standards he demands.

It is quite difficult for us to read his slides on this video, but I am left in little doubt that his graphs are fed by data that is empirically tested for the purposes of scientific truth and accuracy rather than massaged for the purposes of promoting a pre-written narrative.

It’s an important speech and, because of it and a few like it, posterity will surely be less forgiving of the promoters of global warming alarmism and its monumental cost to Society and the environment. They shall never be able to claim that no one told them.