Earlier this month there was some good news for the climate and people concerned about it: the BBC has finally woken up to the foolish idea of balance in the climate change debate. It now concedes that putting non-scientist sceptics on air opposite actual scientists creates obviously false balance. This is great news.
We think more could be done, however. Sometimes even scientists, human beings too, don’t get the facts across noise-free (unclouded by bias). This is why we think the BBC should consider ‘facts and nothing but them’ and aim in the future to broadcast climate (and other controversial science) items as evidence-only digital data-bursts.
This is a campaign in development for the moment, so we welcome your thoughts below.
So all viewers/readers need is an app to decode the data into readable text/graphics? One problem: once decoded most people do not have expertise in reading scientific data. So they’ll still need interpretation. Back to the drawing board.
Here we go.
Ricochet, if people don’t know how to ‘read’ scientific data, that’s their look out. They should read up on how to read scientific data. If you’re gonna say they might not know how to read I’ll leave it there. That’s nonsense.
Why is it their look out? If the future of the world depended on having a PhD in climate science it would be their look out, but it doesn’t depend on this. It depends on people – non-scientists – weighing up costs and benefits i.e. economics and the political choices therein.
Yes, and? (I’ve read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy btw.)
You should get the point straightaway, then. Yes?
I know the point about 42. I just told you: I read Hitchhikers quite recently as it happens. But what relevance has it? To this discussion?
Ok. I’ll explain. Got a pen? The idea of ’42’ is literature’s most famous example of ‘scientism’. Do you know what scientism is? (Clue: it’s what your databursts are, and what the BBC seems increasingly enthralled by.)
In other news, the evidence shows Nigel Lawson was factually accurate in his notorious Today Programme interview opposite scientist Brian Hoskins. Looks like the BBC might have some explaining to do. Steve McIntyre does the investigating no-one in the BBC can be bothered to do: http://climateaudit.org/2014/07/13/was-lawson-right-about-the-uk-floods/
In my idle moments when time gathers sufficiently that a percentage can be frittered away on nonsense and daydreams I sometimes imagine you, Marcus, sat there in your hair (is it real I ask?), TED videos lined up, tap water to hand, mocking impressions of Michael Gove finished for the day, vigorous dislike of homeopaths sufficiently tweeted, allowing a hesitant smile to cross your chops, a smile that says, ‘Yes, this is all just a game, a cultural tit-for-tat of cool vs uncool signifiers, a war in which feeling good about yourself is the only mark of victory, but boy do I feel good about myself’.
Well, let me appraise you of something you might have missed, Marcus old boy: the other side to your feel-good frippery is a scandalously betrayed developing world, allowed only poverty-level ‘sustainability’.
This game, by the way, was sketched out by your apparently beloved Douglas Adams a full 3 decades ago if you really want to go into it.
What do you say to that?
You’ll be glad to know I’ve gathered my evidence now so here it is. In bursts of analogue information packets known as ‘words’.
Ok, so I’m splitting up your interminably long and boring reply, Ricochet, because its length, not to mention its pompous essay-type tone, is putting people off. Since you posted it the dozens of visitors the post has been getting have been noticeably reluctant to comment themselves. And that was sort of the point, to invite comment (constructive comment).
“You’re a bunch of raving nutters,” erupts Ford Prefect in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. He’s speaking to a tribe of mediocrities who, since crash landing on pre-historic earth over a year ago, have done nothing sensible to get started as a functioning society. Not even, in the case of their leader, making the initial step of getting up out of the bath.
[It’s like we’re in school – Marcus]
Well, when Douglas Adams wrote this in the late 70s, in retrospect he was lucky. The targets of his satire occupied positions high enough to make aspects of modern life tedious, but not high enough to do real damage. After all, in the story the thinkers and doers back on Golgafrincham are quite capable of winning the day by shifting this useless third of the population off the planet in their ‘B-Ark’.
[Are you wearing tweed? Do you smell faintly of sherry? – Marcus]
Now though, almost forty years on, it’s a different story. A la David Frost, this bunch of technocratic dullards (viz: the NGOs [see LFG], the conviction free career politician, the expedient academic, the puritans, prigs and prudes of Public Health) have risen without trace to become the political elite in most western democracies.
[Oh fuck, it’s this again – M]
Compare and contrast: A cosy club dominated by safety and caution? Yes. Risk-averse? Yes. With directionless leaders? Yes. Who wallow in a warm safe bath being told what they want to hear by unctuous, insecure yes-men gathering round the bath edge? Yes. ‘Yes-men’ who stubbornly cleave to policies that cut off their nose to spite their faces? Yes. (In the story the B-Arkers burn down vast acres of forest to keep their leaf-based currency buoyant; in real life the environmentalist elite oppose shale gas despite its success in reducing CO2 emissions, and disapprove of genetically modified crops despite their efficiency increases releasing more land for re-wilding.) A mythical tale of impending catastrophe that got you into this pathetic morass in the first place? Yes. (In the case of the B-Ark Golgafrinchans it was a giant star-goat that was supposed to swallow their home planet whole. In our case: catastrophic climate change.)
Finally, a penchant for making documentaries about themselves? Yes, yes and yes.
We deal with all this in our section about our name, Ricochet. You obviously haven’t read it. But do continue. Do drone on.
It’s this last factor that is possibly most interesting.
He was an interesting writer.
Like the B-Arkers, the politically dominant Third Sector (of Public Health and Environmental NGOs) is hypnotised by the prospect of making documentaries. Lots and lots of documentaries.
Ricochet would obviously rather just watch endless repeats of Hollyoaks, dear reader. Even though he’s clearly the wrong side of 60.
Just on the environmental side of things I gave up counting at 56 (since the 1990s). Queen of the Sun, Sharkwater, The End of the Line, Food Inc., The Future of Food, Food Matters, Ingredients, All In This Tea, An Inconvenient Truth, 11th Hour, Age of Stupid… the list goes on, examining in unrelenting, pitiless, factual detail every single aspect of their concerns about humanity’s ‘impact on’ the natural world.
It’s called ‘raising awareness’. Naughty us for wanting to get some actual facts out there.
Why do I say this is the most telling trait? Because a turn to documentary making, and away from imaginative and creative forms of storytelling, gives the strongest clue yet as to what’s really happened in politics and culture in recent times: a collapse in our society’s ability to imagine beyond itself.
If one measure of the health of a society is its ability to tell beautiful, honest stories about itself and humanity as a whole, you need only look at the literary cringe that hobbles green fiction to see that something’s gone terribly wrong. All of it, without exception, seeks approval as quasi-documentary, stuffing itself full of facts and figures and bolting on plots and characters as mere vessels for the delivery of those facts and figures. GM foods drama Fields of Gold (2002) co-written by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, for instance, was a Manichean tale pitting the forces of light against dark as they pertain to horizontal gene transfer and the rise of vacomycin resistant staphylococcus aurea. Gene 2B or gene ¬2B? The imaginative leap is beyond woeful; the effort higher in some Looney-Tunes cartoons.
This much was admitted in the promotional blurb that accompanied BBC TV’s next big environmental offering, 2008’s global warming drama ‘Burn Up’. “Writer Simon Beaufoy,” it dribbled, “has constantly updated his research so our script is as current and realistic as today’s front-page news.” Translation: ‘Riven with anxieties about the role of the writer, Simon Beaufoy eschews all attempts to explore complex emotional, philosophical and human depths and instead delivers a script that perfunctorily skims the glossy surface and is as gossamer-thin, vapid, disposable and sensationalist as today’s front page news.’
Too hard? A gross generalisation? Ok, I’ll grant you a concession. A few years back, in a defence of his film, green-leaning director Josh Fox (of Gasland fame) did actually say something sensible. Yes he did. He said: “Art is more important than politics. Politics is people lying to you and simplifying everything; art is about contradictions.”
But, oh no, concession withdrawn when you see Fox’s comment in context. The ‘Art’ he’s talking about is his film, which isn’t art, but… yep, documentary. With a political thrust. In which he lied. So really he’s saying ‘My politics is more important than your politics. Your politics is full of lies, whereas mine is merely full of contradictions. And I want you to apply that rule to the fact that I’m even lying to you right now to further my political aims. This is just one more interesting contradiction. A meta-contradiction, if you will. [check: sufficiently gnomic???]’. So, false alarm! He’s as thick as shitty jam after all. Or half as thick as shitty jam: he was half-right. Meaning there might be some hope. If some day in the future he does actually produce some art he’ll be cooking with gas.
Haha! Cooking with gas! (He’s opposed to gas, you dreadful clot.)
Of course, you may not agree that the health of a society can be measured in its ability to tell beautiful and honest stories. You may say the best measure is a society’s ability to gather data. But if you do you’re on the level of the B-Arkers. Because to them facts rule. Read Adams’s hero Oscar Wilde.
In The Decay of Lying, Wilde hammers into the B-Ark fact-worshipping mentality with delightful ease. We are not blobs of fact roaming the earth, he says, but creative creatures who produce truth through creative effort, through telling stories. Our world is fashioned through lying beautifully, it’s how we discover what is beautiful and good. ‘Facting’ a fiction (or any other artwork) till it soils itself is therefore a form of vandalism. In so doing you ‘unart’ art, you make the work instrumental, transform it from an end, a thing of beauty, into a means to an end, a tool. In other words, you yank it out of the category of art, which adds something new to the world, and dump it in the less interesting category of journalism or documentary, which merely reports on the world – art being defined by form and style, not factual rigour.
This is incredibly important, said Wilde. Because form and style enrich our lives on their own terms. To make the point again, they add something new to the world. And through an appreciation of form and style we discover who we are and what we like. These things being known, we can then legislate, enter into the world of policy-making. The point being it’s no use legislating until we’ve decided what we like and dislike, which is something we constantly re-discover in the activity of making and viewing art.
Anyone? Nope, me neither.
But no thanks! For the B-Arker facts discovered by science guide legislation. Want to know what you think is high, true, noble, free, just and beautiful? Nueroscience! Want to know how to educate children? Randomised control trials. Want to know how to live best? Nutritional data on foods and drink. To go back to the B-Arkers, want to know how to make the wheel? Focus groups, data analysis, acting on the consensus. Any truths revealed to us through the humanities, any feelings for meaning and truth, pleasure and beauty are irrelevant. Poetry? Don’t be a ponce. Listen to Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse: science, and the data that accrues therefrom, is the pre-eminent guide to life, the universe and everything.
And yet, how would Sir Paul respond to the news that researchers had, as a policy solution to the intractable problem of life-dissatisfaction, found a way of attaching happiness-inducing implants in our brains? As a mere scientist relying on scientific ways of measuring he’d be limited to saying ‘go for it, happiness is happiness: a neuro-cognitive affect, a chemical alignment producing measurable stimulation on the reward pathways leading from the ventral tegmental area of the brain at that moment’. He couldn’t comment on the unearned nature of this ‘happiness’. His choice of measurement stops short of that capability. He’s using the wrong sort of ruler, a ruler incapable of measuring in the relevant plane. Only those soft bundles of feeling, human beings, who create value and meaning in the context of living life well in a shared historical arc, in the context of a story, can say ‘actually, we feel that sort of happiness is less valuable even than the fleeting satisfaction you get from, say, receiving a car-bound hand-wave from a complete stranger in acknowledgement of a polite motoring manoeuvre’. Sorry, Sir Paul, policy making cannot rely on science for guidance. A proper perspective on a particular policy needs to be informed by something more than scientific insight.
So go ahead BBC, ban the data-sceptics from your broadcasts, pretend the climate debate is one in which only science can tell us all the answers to all the dimensions of how we go forward as a society. Pretend there aren’t sociological, psychological, and political dimensions to notions of confidence and risk-taking, precaution and anxiety – and that these all too human externalities don’t in turn have some sway over how human researchers approach and orientate their scientific investigations. Pretend it’s entirely the other way around: that the natural world forms a kind of dictatorship, decreeing policy by a supernatural type transubstantiation, from physical fact direct to human policy act, without any need to consider the story of how we humans have fared in the past or how we might fare in the future. Pretend that Percy Bysshe Shelley was wrong when he said poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
But beware. In so doing you’ll be undoing all the good work you did in helping one of the 20th century’s funniest critics of narrow, moronic scientism to find enough of a voice not just to declare the answer to the meaning of life is 42, but also to predict that one day the answer to our early 21st century political disarray would be marked out in a hockey-stick graph that rises dramatically at the end, a graph with the persuasive power of a story that says a star-goat is on his way with jaws wide open.
Any thoughts Marcus?
Try this: databurst2
Ricochet, my dear fellow: data. Signals.
We really should act.
Yes, and ASAP.
You see, this is yet another aspect of the collapse of the imagination. The emphasis on the present tense. We see it in the rise of documentary, of reality television, and the increasing cringe in fiction, and we see it in the rise of the catastrophic imagination of environmentalists – an inability to imagine rationally and calmly beyond present circumstances, beyond the here and now. What we are doing now, at this moment will decide either survival or catastrophe. So we must act NOW. It’s a present-tense panic. But if you live in the present tense, you’re naturally prone to panic as disaster is always one second round the corner in the continual death of the present tense. This is how we live now.
Again, I’m shaking my head… Whu?
Know what? I think you’re jealous, Ricochet. I think you’re actually jealous.
Hahaha! Jealous? Of what??
Um, anything specifically?
Quite a lot of things. And possibly the girls. The women.
Haha. Priceless. You have nothing to say, so you devolve to childish nonsense like this.
Very pretty. Anything constructive to say?
Pretty and feisty. As ever, though, you conveniently cherry pick your data and try desperately to hide the decline:
Imagine that pile-up in bed with you Marcus. Imagine it, go on. “Are you fracking kidding me?” Indeed so.
Er, what’s wrong with Monbiot exactly?
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