Monthly Archives: August 2014
Imagine that you are a journalist — it’s not hard to do — in need of some information about climate change. Where would you turn to first?
You might start with the UK’s allegedly independent Committee on Climate Change, they are charged by the Climate Change Act 2008 with establishing the UK’s ‘carbon budgets’. Or, of course, for more policy-related matters, you could ring the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Both these organisations have media officers. But perhaps you want more of a science angle. In which case, you could have got in touch with the Met Office. The Met Office scientists do lots of research into climate change and its impacts — work that needs no introduction here — much of which comes out of its Hadley Centre. Or you could get in touch with some of the other academic research departments that have been created over the years: The Climate Research Unit at UAE, or al at UEA, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, which has branches at Cardiff University, Newcastle, Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Sussex, or Southampton Universities. Or you could get in touch with The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE, or it’s sister, The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College, just down the road. There’s The Walker Institute for Climate Research at Reading, The National Centre for Atmospheric Science, which is part of the National Environmental Research Council, which funds and directs an array of research programmes across many research organisations, throughout the UK and beyond.
Perhaps you’re more interested in responses to climate change. In which case, there are the government-backed non-profit companies Carbon Trust, Energy Saving Trust, and The Waste & Resources Action Plan (WRAP). Or there are the departments, quangos, statutory bodies and non departmental public bodies, not already mentioned, like OFGEM, the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Environment Agency, The Forestry Commission, and many others.
And of course, let us not forget the charities and NGOS!… Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The WWF, The RSPB, and those one-time development and relief charities, who prefer to concentrate on making the weather noce, rather than saving people’s lives, like Oxfam, Tearfund, and Save the Children. An even fuller list can be found on Wikpedia.
In other words, if you wanted to find out about the climate, there are, literally, thousands of people, in hundreds of organisations, with budgets totalling many, many £billions, that you could call on — and that’s before we’ve even considered other individual experts and organisations in other countries. Each of them has a view on climate change and probably wants to share it with you. Every organisation listed above has at least one media officer, if not an entire media team.
(In other words, if you are a journalist, and you’re unsure about where to go for a comment about climate change, you are doing the wrong job, and the discussions about mediocrity in the previous two posts on this blog apply to you absolutely.)
So why, then, has this week seen the birth of a new climate change organisation, the ominously-titled, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit?
The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit is a non-profit organisation that supports informed debate on energy and climate change issues in the UK.
We support journalists and other communicators with accurate and accessible briefings on key issues, and work with individuals and organisations that have interesting stories to tell, helping them connect to the national conversation.
But isn’t this is a job that was already being done by The Carbon Brief.
Carbon Brief reports on the latest developments and media coverage of climate science and energy policy, with a particular focus on the UK. We produce news coverage, analysis and factchecks, and publish a daily and weekly email briefing.
Carbon Brief are…
… grateful for the support of the European Climate Foundation, which provides our funding.
And The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit gladly tells us that,
All of our funding comes from philanthropic foundations. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the European Climate Foundation, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation.
Tellus Mater are a mysterious organisation…
Tellus Mater’s mission is to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill it’s role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.
Furthering green capitalism strikes me as a categorically political objective. And yet here it seems to be presenting itself as a philanthropic organisation, pursuing indubitably noble, if not value-free objectives, while not listing its supporters, or saying much at all about where its own money comes from.
The Grantham Foundation, of course, is set up from the extraordinary wealth of the super-rich Jeremy Grantham — another mega capitalist, again, note.
And the European Climate Foundation…
was established in early 2008 as a major philanthropic initiative to promote climate and energy policies that greatly reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to help Europe play an even stronger international leadership role to mitigate climate change.
The group of philanthropists who founded the ECF were deeply concerned over the lack of political action and the lack of general public awareness around the devastating future consequences implied by climate change. They formed the ECF – a ‘foundation of foundations’ – to collaborate in ensuring the necessary transformation from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy.
The ECF has an annual budget of roughly €25 million. The majority of our funds are re-granted to NGOs and think tanks engaged in bringing about meaningful policy change. Our programme staff collaborate with grantees and experts from the field and funders to design and fund strategies based on a thorough understanding of decision-makers, decision-making processes, and political context. In 2012, we made 181 grants to 102 organisations.
There seems to be a lot of ‘philanthropic’ activity aimed not as much at helping people, as managing the public’s perception of climate change and influencing policy makers. The alleged “lack of general public awareness around the devastating future consequences implied by climate change” is of course, what has concerned all three major political parties, and thus the government, its departments, The United Nations and its organisations, the European Union and its organisations, NGOs, charities, and of course, all manner of public organisations.
It is a puzzling thing… democratic governments, supranational political organisations and charities seem to be out of kilter with the public mood, yet each depend on the public to a greater or lesser extent, for legitimacy. Together, they seem to think it is their role to persuade the public rather than respond to them. It is hard to resist the idea that this gap in fact precedes the political establishment’s embrace of climate change, and that the possibility of the end of the world in fact comes as quite a relief to those who still have positions of power, in spite of that gap.
The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) demonstrated the need for itself by commissioning a survey. The poll, said the ECIU, “shows widespread misconceptions about energy and climate change”.
It shows that only one in nine (11 percent) of people are aware of the strength of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, a finding that the ECIU said carries ‘uncomfortable echoes’ of the MMR controversy of 15 years ago.
In fact, the Comres survey asked,
What proportion of climate scientists do you think believe that climate change is mainly the result of human activities?
The answers were as follows:
Almost all 11%
A majority 43%
About half and half 35%
A minority 9%
Almost none 2%
It wasn’t good enough for ECIU that 43% of respondents only said ‘a majority’ — they were ignorant if they didn’t say ‘amost all’. ECIU continue,
Nearly half of the UK population (47 percent) think either that most climate scientists reject the idea that human activities such as fossil fuel burning are the main driver of climate change (11 percent), or that scientists are evenly split on the issue (35 percent). Several recent studies [ Cook et al, Tol, Verheggen et al] show that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that the main cause of climate change is human activity.
In spite of surveys such as Cook et al, the view that scientists are split on a proposition as ambiguously framed as the survey’s is not unreasonable.
For instance, even if one believes i) that climate change is a problem, and that ii) it is a problem caused by industrial emissions, and even that iii) most scientists believe i) and ii), there is the question of degree to which a) climate change is a problem, b) climate change is caused by man, which the proposition in the survey ducks. The problem of ill-defined propositions is rife in climate change science, as I pointed out last year:
Nuccitelli’s survey results are either the result of a comprehensive failure to understand the climate debate, or an attempt to divide it in such a way as to frame the result for political ends. The survey manifestly fails to capture arguments in the climate debate sufficient to define a consensus, much less to make a distinction between arguments within and without the consensus position. Nuccitelli’s survey seems to canvas scientific opinion, but it begins from entirely subjective categories: a cartoonish polarisation of positions within the climate debate.
No less a figure than climate scientist, Professor Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre, joined the debate.
Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it. It offers a similar depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to that adopted in Anderegg et al.’s 2010 equally poor study in PNAS: dividing publishing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?
The informed member of the public would now know that respectable, consensus, mainstream position on climate change is that,
1. There are serious problems with the historical temperature record, especially as it has been constructed from proxies.
2. There are serious problems with projections of likely future temperature, especially as they have been produced from computer models.
3. There are no detectable signals, attributable to climate change, in statistical records of climate, or losses associate with them.
These are points which emerge from mainstream climate science. They are not the irrational beliefs held by anti-scientific ‘deniers’.
So the scientific understanding of the planet’s past and future climate, once regarded as an essential component of understanding climate change are in fact matters of debate. It might be reasonable for the public to regard the question posed by the survey as trivial. And as Judith Curry points out about the current climate, there are many problems with the claim that ‘more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together’ — far from speaking for itself, the statement needs unpacking and its premises interrogating. Meanwhile, the Cook et al study deviated from the consensus position in effect by including in its estimation of the ‘consensus’, studies which proceeded from the putative consensus a priori, rather than investigating it. The problem, as I have explained in the article linked to above, is one of a ‘consensus without an object’: most people agree with the consensus without identifying what the point or principle of agreement is, thus the ‘consensus’ is invented ad hoc, to suit whatever is needed from it, in any particular debate. New light has been shed on the study by Jose Duarte.
In the case of the ECIU’s attempt to construct foundations for itself out of the public’s ignorance of science, this new organisation does a good job of mangling its own survey, which aimed to measure the public’s memory of an earlier mangled survey — Cook et al. One can now imagine that someone in the future trying to understand the construction of successive organisations, each built on the failures of previous organisations. There will be some kind of archaeologist, peeling back through mangled surveys and studies, but never reaching the actual point of origin — a climate change big bang.
The problem that exists in the present for the likes of Cook et al’s 97% survey, is that it is not having the desired effect of rousing the masses from their climate science slumber. Yet it was transparently a PR exercise, rather than an attempt to inform the public. So too, for that matter, is the European Climate Foundation’s sister-project, The Climate Brief, a PR exercise. One might recall at this point, another PR exercise:
The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is a match-making service to connect climate scientists with lawmakers and the media. The group is committed to providing rapid, high-quality information to media and government officials.
Climate Science Rapid Response team member scientists are chosen to cover a wide array of topics related to Climate Science. They have been selected based upon their publications in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals.
There is a wide gap between what scientists know about climate change and what the public knows. The scientists of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team understand that better communication can narrow this gap. The media is in the best position to deliver accurate science information to the general public and to our elected leaders but only when they have access to that information. The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is committed to delivering that service. We are advocates for science education.
The climate change communication field now seems crowded with organisations claiming to be able to connect the public, via the media, with climate scientists.
The Climate Science Rapid Response Team seems to have been convened by Richard Hawkins of the Public Interest Research Centre(PIRC). And as we know, it’s all about funding…
PIRC was set up with grants from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable and Social Services Trust. One way or another, JRCT has supported every one of our major ventures over the years.
PIRC has also been core-funded for many years by the 1970 Trust, and grants for individual projects have in the past been given by other organisations including the Consumers Association, Social Science Research Council, Allen Lane Foundation, Artists Project Earth, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, the Network for Social Change, Nuffield Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Sainsburys Family Trusts and Trocaire. In the past few years have also received support from civil society organisations, including WWF-UK, RSPB, and 10 other conservation organisations for Common Cause for Nature.
So now there are an entire ecosystem of philanthropic organisations, funding other organisations to ‘inform’ an apparently ignorant public for their own good. But each of them fail to alter the balance of public opinion. What has the ECIU got that The Climate Science Rapid Response Team not got? And what have they got that The Carbon Brief hasn’t got? And while we’re there, what have those organisations got that organisations like The Science Media Centre — which also aims to put scientists in front of cameras — have not got?
Paul Matthew in the comments below notes that we should remember the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), which is also funded by the ECF, amongst many others. And Responding To Climate Change (RTCC), which appears to be a project of a private company, Entico, which has substantial contracts with the United Nations. Then there’s the conglomeration of NGOs, ClimateCoalition, and CaCC (Campaign against Climate Change), too — each of which claims to be doing the same thing.
We should examine these claims to be informing the public and raising the level of debate. That is not the effect of any of these organisations. All such sound-byte mines do is encourage lazy, sloppy, cut-and-paste journalism. Churnalism. All the journalist needs to do, now, to write a piece about climate change, is ring up any of these organisations, ask for the officially-sanctioned and hygienic comment, without ever having had to go to the trouble of understanding the debate they are reporting on.
The founder of ECIU is Richard Black, a former BBC journalist, who became known for his palpable activism-cum-journalism — not something which is deserving of criticism in and of itself, but which under the pretence of i) scientific journalism, and ii) the BBC’s commitment to the environmental issue, is rather jarring. Just as there are plenty of ‘units’ established to ‘communicate’ science, and a surfeit of media organisations intent on burdening the public with ‘information’ about climate change, journalists like Black were ten-a-penny. That is the consequence of mediocrity’s ascendency, of course. There was speculation that Black’s notoriously one-sided hectoring became too much, even for the BBC. The notion that the public might not be getting the right messages might not be all that distinct to bitterness at being removed from an organisation which very rarely gets rid of anyone it has put in the public eye.
But journalists removed from such high profile institutions as the BBC’s World Service leave with the connections to the world intact. Hence, Black has been able to assemble quite a team, as Andrew Montford notes, over at Bishop Hill.
Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green & Bow
Richard Benyon, MP for Newbury
The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, British Medical Journal
Professor Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change Policy, UCL
Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-Director, Grantham Institute, Imperial College London
Marylyn Haines Evans, Public Affairs Chair, National Federation of Women’s Institutes
Martin Horwood, MP for Cheltenham
Lord Howard of Lympne
Robin Lustig, Journalist and Broadcaster
Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, Former Commander, UK Maritime Forces
Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool
Lord Puttnam of Queensgate
The Earl of Selborne
Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Head of Open Oceans, British Antarctic Survey
Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness
Sir Crispin Tickell, Former Ambassador to the United Nations
Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director, IIED
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell
I shall spare you the biographies. Andrew suggests that this ugly assembly represents ‘the goblin version of the GWPF’, which is certainly the most of it.
This puts me in mind of a recent post by Judith Curry on ‘Institutionalizing Dissent‘. Says Curry,
One of the norms of science is organized skepticism. Those working at the climate science – policy interface (including the IPCC) have worked hard to kill organized skepticism by manufacturing a consensus on climate change. The idea of a climate red team has been put forward by John Christy. Kantrowitz and Biddle have thought through how institutionalizing dissent might actually work. Particularly for climate science, implementing something like this wouldn’t be simple, and actually achieving the desired objectives would be quite difficult.
I’ve previously drawn a distinction between science as a process and science as an institution (or institutions). When institutional science is expected to produce a consensus, it seems to me, it is at the expense of the process of science, to the extent that the scientific process needs an institutional basis (at least for the resources, etc, that scientific research needs). The manufacture of consensus, it seems to me, is equivalent to the manufacture of consent, or at least equivalent to its circumnavigation: who needs a demos, when you have a mandate from the objectivity of science? But the demos doesn’t go away…
This seems to me to be the point of ‘units’, such as the ECIU. Although such organisations have been unsuccessful at reproducing their ideas in the public’s mind, climate institutions have nonetheless multiplied to occupy a great deal of public space. One can think of orthodoxies being established materially, rather than ‘ideologically’, so to speak, to achieve the same effect. This is the construction of consensus, as opposed to its mere manufacture.
When David Cameron was launching his ‘Big Society’ initiatives, I happened to be working with anti-wind farm campaigners, producing films and other research. It struck me how far removed these people were from the lofty heights of green NGOs. With their feet firmly planted in Brussels and Westminster, NGOs are based in huge office complexes, whereas wind farm campaigns really were launched from kitchen tables, by amateurs, who had zero experience of any kind of campaigning, and few contacts to ask for favours from. Although they are characterised — caricatured — as rural, moneyed and privileged (which I found only occasionally to be the case), wind farm campaigners lacked any resources save for what they had in their pockets. Whereas Greenpeace et al have legal teams to take development or planning issues to the High Court, it was beyond the means of most campaigners to apply for judicial review, and would do at huge personal cost and financial risk. There was never any hope of establishing any kind of institutional response to wind energy.
Whether it is in debates about science or energy policy, those debates have been won by the creation of institutions, in something like ‘astroturfing’. But “informing” the public, or claiming to speak for ordinary people isn’t as much the point as simply dominating the public sphere.
At the other end of the world to the wind farm campaigners — and it might as well be the other end of the universe — is the green lobbying and PR effort. Zombie ‘philanthropic’ organisations. The rotting corpses of dead billionaires infect the world of the living. Take, for instance, the words of the European Climate Foundation — funders of The Carbon Brief and The ECIU:
Adopting stricter standards and effective labels for appliances and equipment
All energy-using products made in or imported into the EU must meet minimum energy performance standards and product labels that encourage the production and purchase of more efficient models. The Ecodesign and Energy Labelling directives both established complex processes for designing and adopting new standards and labels. To counter industry efforts to weaken requirements and delay implementation, we support a network of technical experts and NGOs that monitor and participate in the regulatory process and arm policymakers with data and analyses to ensure adoption of the most ambitious, technically and economically feasible requirements. Our work in this arena has already led to notable successes, most recently on boilers and vacuum cleaners.
The ECF are congratulating themselves for having lobbied — spending 25 million Euros a year — the European Union to ban electronic appliances with energy consumption over a certain rating. That meant lightbulbs and washing machines, and just this week, it means vaccum cleaners, and in the future it will mean more and more appliances. It sounds somewhat trivial, but although it means that although washing machines now use less water and less electricity, it means they are less good at cleaning. Ditto, vacuum cleaners with less power are less able to produce a vacuum, and thus less able to clean floors. The policymaker’s conceit is that by setting a standard in law, innovation follows. But there was never a need to force competing manufacturers to find an edge over each other. Now, rather than meeting consumer need, manufacturers have to meet the needs of Europe’s technocrats, and the will of dead billionaires.
And although the consequences are for the consumer, and it seems like so much whinging about not having quite as good an electrical appliance as could be had, the means by which this transformation was acheived was political. The ECF, again:
Our primary geographic focus is on Brussels (the hub of EU policymaking), Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Poland – five venues that play a critical role determining Europe’s political leadership on climate and energy policy.
The institutions where policies are made should not be the plaything of philanthropic organisations and their benefactors. What business do the ECF, and for that matter Richard Black and the ECIU have in Brussels, Germany, the UK and Poland? They are not elected. They do not stand for public positions.
So don’t be fooled, The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit does not exist to inform the public, but to deny the public democratic expression. The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit is not about ‘science’, it is about transforming politics, to take power away from people, to put it in the hands of dead ‘philanthropists’.
The last post here noted that there was more than coincidence to environmentalism’s ascendency and the decline of the press. The broader point made here is that mediocrity seems to infect many public institutions, who in turn seem to resort to environmentalism. It’s not just the press; it is hard not to see environmental ‘ethics’ where the ground that has supported organisations seems to have slipped. From agencies which once promised to elevate less developed parts of the world, through to political parties which once represented (or claimed to represent) an entire economic class, promises to construct a better world have given way to a more basic commitment: saving you from Themageddon.
This observation is vulnerable to the criticism that some individuals have been pointed out as mediocre — certain journalists in particular — which may be synonymous with ‘stupid’. The first defence I would make here is that of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the point being that the environmentalist, be he a journalist or academic, presumes that the individual who calls him out on his nakedness does so out of stupidity, the clothes only being visible to those wise enough to wear them. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is aimed precisely at the tendency of people in power to find ways to justify their status and to further elevate themselves. Second, much of that self-justification involves contempt for ordinary people. Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” being perhaps the epitome of such a big green finger pointing at people. To disagree is not to have understood or engaged with the ideas, but to be too stupid to understand.
This classic intellectual self-defence move can be seen in motion in the comments under Bob Ward’s latest rant against Matt Ridley at the New Statesman.
There is no possibility of ‘debating’ with deniers. You cannot use reason, logic and science to persuade someone who was not convinced by reason, logic and science to begin with.
You have no idea what you are talking about and you flatly refuse to be educated.
I just can’t be bothered with ignorant gullible dupes who don’t even understand basic schoolboy physics.
The “alarmists” have sighed in resignation and refused to take part in the farce that is global warming denial.
If we had a debate on the moon, with an astrophysicist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and an astronaut, we might learn something about the moon even if none of them agreed on a thing. If David Icke showed up and said the moon was a hollowed out deathstar constructed by aliens, which was then used to wipe out the dinosaurs, and the others simply refused to engage him, that wouldn’t “expose” them as being wrong and it wouldn’t show their position is empty.
As was pointed out in the previous post, the quality of self-justification does not improve as one moves from the world of online comments, through to the Royal Society and the Committee on Climate Change. Paul Nurse and John Gummer’s arguments are no more sophisticated than Fuzzyspider’s and Leslie Graham’s, whoever they are. Thus the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society do not have to account for themselves in the face of criticism. But what is the point of science academies and expert panels if it is not to shed light on debates, and to respond to criticism? Rather than following in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the tendency seems to be to belittle critics, and to attack their character.
To understand the climate debate, then, it is often necessary to look outside it, rather than take it at face value. The claim I’m making here is that we can see reasons for public figures’ and institutions’ total embrace of environmentalism and their resistance to criticism. The debate is far wider than the question “is climate change happening?”, which seems to often resort to claiming that the public and deniers are ‘stupid’, which now prompt the question “aren’t these emperors, in fact, quite stupid?”.
Take, for example, the recent experience of Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, Dr. Susan Blackmore. “A hundred walked out of my lecture”, she complains after her lecture to a group of young students visiting Oxford University failed to convince them that their ideas were not the result of an active engagement with the world, but merely the colonisation of their minds by autonomous agents, known as ‘memes’.
Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.
I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.
Blackmore believes that religious sensibilities were being offended, causing the exit. But there are good reasons why an atheist might be moved to do the same. Being host to an atheist ‘memeplex’ is no better than being host to a religious ‘memeplex’. Thus she has no right to be offended by her students’ exit. She wasn’t just calling religious people stupid, she was calling every last member of the audience stupid…
I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.
The problem for Blackmore, as for Dennet, is that whereas the mechanisms of evolution — DNA — has been isolated, the mechanisms by which ideas and culture are transmitted are harder to identify. The mutation of ideas is usually intentional, which is to say that adaptation is about something, or for some end, at least as often as it is accidental. Matt Ridley calls this process ‘ideas having sex’, but I think he strays too close to the Dawkins-Dennet-Blackmore line here, albeit ending with something much more positive. It is people who generate ideas, in the circumstances they find themselves in, for particular ends. Blackmore, argues, on the other hand, that self-awareness is an illusion, that there is no ‘consciousness’ as such; these are just the products of memeplexes.
This requires a small amount of consideration. Is this a satisfactory way of accounting for our experience of the world, or is it a hasty attempt to circumvent difficult philosophical questions, to bring ‘science’ to bear over questions that science cannot answer yet? I believe it is the latter.
Is the self-perception of the seemingly autonomous self any less weird — i.e. easy to explain — than free will itself? I deny that it is. We find ourselves faced with at least the illusion of autonomy, yet even putting this down to the expression of ‘memes’ having infected our mind moves us no closer to understanding the mechanism by which mere substance produces experience, including will. Blackmore takes a massive shortcut through thousands of years of philosophical reflection on subjective experience — humanity — to say ‘it’s a process‘, yet cannot explain the process. The result is, at best, prosaic. And that is why theoreticians hoping to advance the field of ‘memetics’ have made no progress, and have only antagonised their relationships with their religious counterparts, and alienated themselves. The only notable thing they have achieved is to promote the word ‘meme’ as it applies to the transmission of novelty web content, which is however, more easily explained by the desire to overcome the boredom experienced by people working in office environments, than by the idea of mindless ‘meme-machines’ reproducing content.
In other words, the problem facing memeticians is in reproducing their ideas beyond the narrow environment in which such ideas seem to thrive. But notice that the consequences of memetics do not seem to apply to its proponents.
Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?
I grew up not a quarter of a mile from that very High Street, not one inch of which would look the same had there never been religion. For all the problems attributed to religion, it had created a unique centre of learning, in which the theory of genetic evolution has been advanced, and things such as penicillin discovered, and ideas such as freedom of religion and democracy thrived. Side-by-side, contesting perspectives of the universe were developed, no doubt occasionally resulting in some form of conflict, but as often as not between competing explanations of the physical realm as between accounts of creation and their consequences for the Good Life.
The view of religion offered by memeticians, however, is that it causes people who are ‘infected’ by religion to cut the heads from the shoulders of infidels. Again, I propose a simpler explanation for the horrific acts, which are now transmitted by social media than the one offered by Dawkins and his acolytes. To emphasise the role that religion plays in conflict is to eschew any attempt at understanding the political history of those conflicts, and how it has narrowed the possibilities of transcending religious identities, rendering them trivial. No doubt the doctrine of the Islamic State is poison. But it is advancing through a war-ravaged region, by force of terror, not by transmission of some infectious agent between minds. It is a reign of gangsters and warlords over people denied protection, not the proliferation of an idea. Again, to explain the transmission of the idea as the communication of ‘memes’ belies the fact that the choice given is ‘believe this or die’.
What I am suggesting here is firstly that people walked out of Sue Blackmore’s lecture because she takes a condescending view of people. Second, that this notion of people as stupid and blind automata seems to be prevalent amongst the political class. It seems to explain to them why the hoi polloi take risks with their health, don’t obey authority, and don’t take sufficient notice of climate expertise. In particular, seemingly ‘scientific’ ideas are used to belittle the public, to question their competence to act even in their own interests as individuals and en masse. Such patronising views of people are not unique to the climate debate.
Although the metaphysical proposition — or rather complete denial of metaphysics — of memetics and discussion about it seems like so much philosowaffle, ideas about the constitution of the human mind inform a great deal of policy-making and politics. The mediocrity spoken of above and in the previous post sits in contrast to an era in which politics was, for the most part, premised on the notion of individual autonomy: that people are capable of making decisions for themselves and capable of understanding the risks they are exposed to. This transformation of the political establishment’s view of the public is concomitant with a transformation of the relationship between public institutions and the public they once served but who they increasingly see as children needing to be managed.
The world of memes and the world of climate change came together in 2012, when Blackmore’s house was flooded. Writing in the Guardian, she said,
This will pass. Yet what remains is the potential for future floods. These “extreme weather events” are just what climate scientists predicted, and we must expect more as the planet warms further.
I’m trying to enjoy the new knowledge gained and think positively about a house that will be better protected and more resilient when the next extreme weather comes. But, above all, I’m left with this thought: we, as a country and as a world, seem to have ignored the advice of the 2006 Stern review, that acting fast on climate change would be cheaper than coping with the consequences. We didn’t act. So now we must cope with the consequences. Rebuilding homes as they were before is not the way to cope.
The world — or at least insurance providers — was not acting quickly enough for Blackmore. Whether or not climate scientists ‘predicted’ ‘extreme weather events’, the flooding that affected her house was neither extreme, nor unprecedented, nor attributable to climate change. Moreover, the issue for anyone living, as Blackmore does, on a flood plain, is not how to stop climate change, but how to manage the excess water that has always plagued people who live on them. Her emphasis on climate change rather than on essential civil infrastructure, however, demonstrates the extent to which the climate change ‘meme’ influences thinking on issues. She had connected, in her own head, for herself, her experience with the prevailing narrative of climate change and ‘extreme weather’. And she had connected them wrongly, as many studies into the frequency and intensity of ‘extreme weather’ have shown. Memes and memeplexes had nothing to do with her joining up her bad ideas with the claims of environmental alarmism.
Does this make her stupid? In my view, Blackmore is not the brightest thinker in the world, but not necessarily stupid, of course. The point being that mediocrity elevates those who are obedient to fashionable schools of thought. The fact of the elevation of redundant parapsychologists to public intellectuals speaks for itself. Blackmore gave up ghost hunting to tell us that we are illusions, and seems to have prospered for doing so. This move wasn’t as useful to society as it was useful to something. And it needs an explanation.
The proliferation of stupid is masked by its own attempts to tell us that we are stupid. But it speaks simultaneously about its own anxiety about its own tenuous grasp on reality, and no less, power. As daft as Blackmore’s ideas about memes are, her elevation of Stern is even dafter. If there was any value in memetics, the genetic analogy would have long ago shown Stern’s work for what it is — an exercise in justifying power for power’s sake.
This blog has long argued that one of the forces driving environmentalism’s ascendency is mediocrity, especially in the press. Green-inkers fancy themselves in some kind of war with sceptics or deniers of what they imagine to be the ‘reality of climate change’. But in fact most responses to the extravagation of alleged journalists in (but not at all limited to) the Independent and Guardian newspapers are incredulity that somebody so thick in the head could be hired by broadsheets, not that the planet’s response to CO2 is warming.
In the wake of ridiculous articles from Geoffrey Lean, Danny Weston has an account of his interaction with former Telegraph environmental correspondent Louise Gray, over at Bishop Hill. Says Weston,
She became well known for her “churnalism” of environmentalist press releases, which were then passed off as journalism with due diligence. Unfortunately only those regularly commenting on her pieces seemed to be aware of this.
Noting ‘complete lack of critical filters on her part’, Weston confronted Gray, who, to her credit, took the matter up with him after a debate, to defend herself. Whereas most environmental journalists typically take the opportunity to run away from criticism, Gray’s mistake seems to have been honesty. Her copy was no more alarmist or absurdly stupid than anything written by Leo Hickman, Damian Carrington or Suzanne Goldenberg, but her defence was underwhelming.
Weston shows the manifestation of mediocrity at work in the copy — and it really is copied — on the green pages of today’s newspapers.
I’ve often wondered how this happened. Weston offers this explanation.
I look at the rubbish routinely pumped out by the likes of Lean and Gray and have increasing difficulty in believing that they mendaciously cling to the climate catastrophism schtick to drive their journalism as a matter of pure ideology.
Weston is right. I can’t think of a smart green journalist. They are, to a man (and woman, of course), apparently quite dim, not given to thinking even that what they churn from “scientists” and NGOs can be criticised. (Indeed, they occasionally end up working for green NGOs, Leo Hickman and Richard Black, for instance).
My theory about how this happened is this. Geography has never been a sexy subject. No newspaper would have ever willingly run stories on the Earth’s natural processes because they are usually boring to most people. But as environmental issues rose up the global and later national political agenda, correspondents with the knowledge necessary to write on the subject informatively were sought. But editors hiring staff have confused passion for a subject with knowledge of a subject. Let’s face it, activists write more exciting copy than the authors of geography textbooks.
One has to be more ignorant than most journalists are to not know that social experiments with deterministic ideas about the world have been tried before, within and without environmental debates. And one needs to be especially stupid not to be able to see climate alarmism in the context of a movement that began with population and resource-centric environmentalism championed by the likes of Paul Ehrlich. As good as such journalists are at reciting the environmentalist’s litany, they are never any good at engaging with critical reflection on it.
What holds for newspapers holds for the academy and political institutions. At some point, some bright spark asked, ‘what is the use of universities’. Knowledge as an end in itself was abandoned, and universities were increasingly made to explain their value, and so established departments and courses specifically aimed to further ‘good governance’ and to produce ‘policy-relevant’ research. Ditto, as the atrophy of political movements turned into full-blown gangrene, green hues bloomed. As left intellectuals died, became confused by age and disoriented by the collapse of their organisations, so the appeal of a planetary emergency grew. The preferred argument against capitalism that today’s leading left-wing thinkers offer is not, per left-wing intellectuals of the past, grounded in sophisticated and abstract understanding of the human condition, the workings of capital, and the identification of mutual interests, but is mere climate blackmail. Here’s Naomi Klein, introducing her latest book, ‘This Changes Everything‘, for example:
Naomi Klein bases her work on ‘a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’. Klein’s embrace of Werner is discussed here.
“Our economic model”, says Klein, “is at war with life on Earth”. This needs to be seen in relation to the view that used to identify the left’s criticism of capitalism. Whereas Klein proposes that capitalism puts humans into an antagonistic relationship with ‘life’ (i.e. ‘Nature’), the historic left’s position was that capitalism created economic classes of people with mutually antagonistic interests.
The rights and wrongs of the historic position to the side, although Klein pitches her argument in terms of ‘building a better world’, her zero-sum-world eco-socialism is mere window-dressing for shallow apocalyptic utopianism: do as I say or the planet dies. People are not asked to come together to build the better world they want, but the world the ‘pink-haired complex systems researcher’ has designed for them. That’s what pink-haired complex systems researchers do. They aren’t good for anything else.
Klein is only the latest person to understand that mathematical models of the environment have political utility. More mainstream (though arguably no less ‘radical’) political organisations have understood precisely this since at least the late 1960s. Because, similarly, governments have found it as hard to justify themselves as atrophied left wing organisations.
The promise of mediocre individuals in powerful positions — let us call them ‘mediocrats’, and their reign ‘mediocracy’ — is to save us from disaster. But we should see this promise for what it is, an inability to either humbly withdraw from public life or to articulate anything better than mere survival. Once expectations have been set so low as to convince us all that, like some victim of a terminal condition, each day might be our last, each day becomes a gift from them.
And this brings us back to the latter-day eco-hacks — the idiot propagandists for mediocracy. Weston says,
… collective hysteria and belief in imminent doom provides a fantastic cover if you have the unfortunate combination of being incompetent, a bit dim and looking for an easy ride being employed amongst the commentariat and attending jollies. I think I’d rather have the competent ideologues to contend with, personally.
I think he does them a favour. We should not be fooled — they really are that stupid. Running away is as much as the best minds in the climate medicracy can muster. Chris will be waiting a long time for environmentalism’s competent ideologues. Take, for example, the Twitter feed of one mediocrat, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Lord John Deben, PKA, John Selwyn Gummer, on Twitter. In the face of criticism, Gummer, unlike Gray, runs away, calling his critics ‘dismissers‘. Even the Nobel Prize-winning minds at the Royal Society refuse to engage in public debate, preferring instead to snipe at Nigel Lawson. The quality of the debate does not improve as one moves away from the seemingly street-level environmentalism of Klein and Occuppiers, through the realms of the junior mediocrats like Bob Ward, up to the ranks of Stern, Nurse and Gummer, and EU and UN nutcases like Christiana Figueres and Connie Hedegaard. Environmental correspondents on national newspapers ought to be able to catch them out. But their bosses employed dullards, whereas in the past one had to be at least slightly brighter than average to catch a job on a national daily.