Generally Speaking

The Tale of Truth and Lie

– and the Other Pandemic

There is a well-known saying about falsehood, credited variously to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and others, which goes something along the lines of a lie going half way round the world before truth gets its boots on. The following rather delightful version was published in an 18th century book of sermons by the English polymath Thomas Francklin:

Falfehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth ; whilft truth lags behind ; her fteps, though fure, are flow and folemn, and fhe has neither vigour nor activity enough to purfue and overtake her enemy.

1787, Sermons on Various Subjects, and Preached on Several Occasions by Thomas Francklin. (Google Books Full View)

Truth has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy.’

Now isn’t that the truth. Thomas Francklin had no inkling that it would one day be possible for ideas, true or false, to spread to, quite literally, ‘all corners of the earth’, or that they wouldn’t need wings, winds, steps, or even time, to do so. But of course he didn’t mean his words to be taken literally—he was saying something about human nature which is just as valid today as it was two centuries ago, which had its origins in primitive society. And which, at this moment in time, is at the root of one of the greatest threats that humanity has to face – a virtual pandemic of false information.

I will start by considering two ideas—two messages—two tales to use Francklin’s word. I’ll call one Truth and the other Lie. And I’ll consider them as viruses competing for dominance in the ‘culture medium’ of modern, hyper-connected society—on the analogy of the Covid virus spreading throughout the hyper-connected world of international travel. (If you picture the charts you sometimes see of air routes and data highways linking all the countries of the world—both of them looking like nerve tracts in some giant brain—the analogy is obvious)

Truth

At first sight Truth seems to have all the advantages in this contest—it is Truth, after all!—the ‘Sword of Truth’, cutting through Falsehood and gleaming with Righteousness. It is Logical, it makes Sense.

It is backed by all the experts—or OK, most of the experts!—Oh, for heaven’s sake—all but three out of every hundred experts, and even they have hardly a single respected scientific paper between them!—Oh, give it a rest!

Truth is based on Evidence and it can be Tested and Verified. Truth, my children, is Sacred. You just have to accept it. Or as I remember my headmaster James (later Sir James) Cobban putting it in his final reply to an uppity 6th Former, ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

But then again Truth is Dull. It is flat, objective, and unemotional. What’s worse, it makes a Virtue of being like that. Which is sickening,

And Truth is Complicated. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, ‘Truth is never pure and rarely simple’. And it is often Difficult. One of the things we learn at school is that science (formalised Truth) is inaccessible to all but a few nerds. You only have to see the scientific illiteracy of contestants on TV quiz shows relative to their knowledge of celebrity culture or even the arts.

Which makes it another big snag that Truth cannot be Certain (except perhaps in limited areas like mathematics). But that’s what Science insists on telling us—scientific truth can only ever be provisional (even though it is the best explanation so far achieved for reconciling a host of reliable observations by generations of painstaking observers—but that’s complicated too, Oh dear!)

And Science can have an infuriatingly smug certainty that cries out for challenge by any self-respecting, red-blooded person. And some of the implications of its discoveries about reality are too deeply uncomfortable and disturbing for many rational and well-meaning people to accept—for example the many worlds hypothesis in cosmology, or the conclusion, which is insisted upon (with a vehemence which is surely unscientific) by what we might call scientific fundamentalists, that life—and for that matter the whole universe—is ultimately purposeless.

On top of all that ‘truth hurts’.

Charles Barsotti, 1933-2014, The New Yorker

Indeed, Truth can be frightening. Especially when it comes to climate change. Or , as Al Gore put it gently in the title of his classic book: the truth about the climate crisis is ‘Inconvenient’. So anyone who helps us to doubt this kind of truth is going to be popular.

And Truth is Constrained; it is held, most of all by itself, to a higher standard than Lie. Just as it takes a spotless car to show a spot, one proven lie can utterly destroy that precious thing, Reputation. While the thirty thousand and first untruth from a well-known liar is just part of his expected style, a single ‘spot’ on a proudly honest man can cast doubt on the truth of everything else he says.

Which brings me finally to that tedious thing, Morality, and the further constraint on Truth that it has to obey the Rules of civilised behaviour.

Lie

So what about message ‘Lie’?

Let’s face it – Lie’s got all sorts of advantages in the race for viral spread. Thomas Francklin was talking about the ease with which false information could propagate in the ‘culture medium’ which existed in 18th century England. In those days it could only spread by human contact, or through letters and/or printed materials among the literate (who were about 90% of Londoners and a smaller proportion elsewhere.) But, even so, Francklin saw there was a serious problem with virus Lie that he needed to warn about.

In the ‘culture medium’ of today’s hyper-linked world, where the spread of untruths is unconstrained by distance or even time, the inherent advantages of Lie are vastly amplified. Our minds—evolved for survival in the world of first-hand experience—have little instinctive grasp of the sheer scale of what is happening in this new, unnatural environment, and modern society has hardly begun to appreciate the threat, still less to erect defences against it.

For starters, instead of having to justify itself through cool, logical explanations aimed at the head, Lie can go straight for the gut and evoke the power of Emotion.

By evoke I mean awaken, or bring out something deeply buried—some instinct, passion, feeling, prejudice. Especially, it can bring out the ancient, tribal hatred of anything perceived as other. Truth thinks the modern world has moved on from this sort of primitive stuff, but Lie knows perfectly well that it hasn’t and plays that card for all it’s worth. Which can be devastating, and we forget that at our peril.

For example, Prime Minister David Cameron, in calling his 2016 Brexit referendum, assumed that the majority of voters would be guided by their heads (Informed and expert opinion then being overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, as indeed it still is). Otherwise he would never have taken such a risk with the country’s future. But he fatally underestimated the power of Emotion—and the way hot nationalism and xenophobia can trump cool reason. And the rest of that, along with Britain’s international standing, is history.

The next advantage that Lie enjoys is not being constrained by quaint, old-fashioned things like Duty, Morality, Conscience, Guilt and Apology.

So Lie can be any message at all which presses the buttons of instant attention. And we know what those are well enough: Novelty, (‘The news’ – ‘Tonight’s main story’), Sensation, Horror (‘Man Bites Dog!’), Something Unexpected, Celebrity, Lust, Outrage, Pictures of Babies/Boobs/Atrocities, Stories of Little Davids besting Goliath Authority (Horatio at the Gate, Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore).

Tuned to press one or more of these buttons, and dressed up in multi-media finery, Lie can launch itself into cyberspace and stand a chance of ‘going viral’ – finding itself passing on and multiplying like a nuclear chain reaction (think A-Bomb), regardless of time and distance, at the mere mouse-clicks of countless intermediaries—some malicious, some genuinely believing the message, some just having fun—anonymously and without personal consequences of any kind.

So we find ourselves in the midst of this pandemic of false information, hate mail and vicious and desperately-hurtful social media attacks on the finest of people—particularly on the finest of people. Dr Rachel Clarke, who writes heart-breakingly of caring for patients dying of Covid-19, is one current example. But the brave scientists who warned so many decades ago about the looming climate emergency experienced similar attacks, much of it seeded by professional deniers who creating doubt about the truth until it became almost too late to respond.

Another factor in the new situation is the distorting power of the artificially-mediated view. This is a subject I first wrote about in my book the Paradox of Progress. I had learned from my experience in general practice to glimpse, no more, the hidden/automatic power of our minds to focus on one tiny object of attention to the exclusion of the total experience hidden in our subconscious which is enormously larger than we can ever realise. In plain words, we get things out of proportion. But in the hyper-linked experience of the online world, even this selectivity of our perception has been immeasurably amplified. So that some spiteful and hate-filled obscenity typed by a lonely weirdo looms and utterly dominates the teeming multitude of decent people who are out there, entirely hidden from view.

But there is still one more factor in the spread of false information which is even more recent—it is the deliberate micro-targeting of individual people with emotive messages tuned to their personalities.

There is a sequence in the Channel 4 docudrama Brexit—The Uncivil War in which we saw Dominic Cummings, Director of the Vote Leave campaign, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, visibly reeling as the potential of this technology is revealed to him. In a secretive meeting on a park bench he is depicted being offered illicit access to Facebook’s vast archive of personal profiles, including astonishingly-detailed insights into their individual susceptibilities.

The story is documented elsewhere, as is the fact that the agency offering the ‘service’ was financially underpinned by a rich American as a trial run for its application during Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. But I have seen little evidence that many people, or indeed many politicians, have fully understood this potential of social media, when used by unscrupulous people to bypass long-established checks on the dissemination of extreme ideas and inflammatory lies, and target them, completely ‘under the radar’, with terrifying precision, directly into the minds of people chosen for their susceptibility to those particular messages.

The possibility that this was a decisive factor in 2016 is regularly discounted by commentators. But in that case it must be a coincidence that its arrival as a viable technique coincided exactly with two ‘earthquake’ election results which confounded virtually all informed expectations. Even Boris Johnson, it seems pretty clear, never expected to win the Brexit vote, or even saw it as part of his plan.

The Outrageous Leader

To return, one last time, to Thomas Francklin and his 18th Century warning. And to the significance of the fact that he preached it in a sermon. Because it was all about Morality—fighting the good fight against the Evil of Falsehood. Because the ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth.

We have explored the vulnerability of Truth in the modern world, but yet again, something utterly new has happened recently:

Consider this weird item in the reporting of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Something said to a New York Times reporter by a man who was waiting to cheer Donald Trump’s arrival in West Palm Beach, fresh from ducking out of the ceremony going on in Washington:

“He gave us freedom,” said Valéry Barto of West Palm Beach, who sported a Make America Great Again hat and waited nearly three hours before Mr. Trump rolled by. “He was for us. Now it’s going to be all messed up.”

Patricia Mazzei and Julia Echikson New York Times 21 Jan 2021

What possible ‘freedom’ could Mr Barto have been talking about?—which he thought explained why he loved Donald Trump with such passion and devotion. Along with ‘us’—that astonishingly—indeed terrifyingly—large proportion of American people?

In my two previous posts since last November’s election I have developed the idea that Trump’s unique appeal was to challenge all aspects of established Authority, for example what he called ‘The Washington Swamp’ and, of course, the liberal press. But crucially, and this was my insight, he also challenged the authority of Truth and Reason of itself. As though it was some looming ‘other’, imposing rules and restrictions on their God-given freedom to think and do what they liked. That, I believe, is the deep reason they loved him so uncritically, and why they continue to do so—because his rhetoric didn’t merely fly in the face of reason—he rejected Reason altogether. He told them that Truth did not exist.

It is notorious that anything Trump didn’t like he labelled ‘Fake News!’—in what seems a gloriously-ironical coinage from the teller of more ‘false or misleading claims’ than almost anyone else in history.

And his response to the Washington Post’s fact-checking (above) was simplicity itself—he just dismissed it as more fake news—giving his followers another target for their outrage into the bargain.

His special counselor Kellyanne Conway joined in the fun in that famous Meet the Press session on January 22, 2017, describing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s manifestly-false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd as ‘Alternative Facts’.

Once he had given his followers permission to escape the constraints of this tyrant Rationality, the sky was the limit. Conspiracy theories, climate change denial, vaccination rejection, paranoid ideas about distant or alien groups, authorities – ‘Brussels’ for the Europhobe, ‘Washington’ for the frontiersman – ‘others‘. Logical argument bounced off followers like water off the oiliest of ducks. Rationality, they hymned, was ‘just another theory’.

And so it went on, Trump found he could say absolutely anything at all, however outrageous—climate change was a hoax—Covid would just disappear ‘like magic’—and the starkest of evidence to the contrary made not the slightest difference to the faithful.

And so to the end, when he simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that he had lost the 2020 election, let alone heavily, and went on repeating, over and oven again, in strident tones and without evidence, that the election had been ‘stolen’. Even after his pathetic rump of lawyers made fools of themselves and the claim had been thrown out by every level of the judiciary throughout the land.

And even then a large proportion of Americans continued to believe his word against all the evidence, and the most devoted among them massed in Washington waving ‘Stop the Steal’ banners. They continued to believe after he whipped up an armed mob which then invaded the Capitol to try to prevent the formal recognition of Biden’s victory, and they did so even after lawmakers of both parties had cowered in the Chamber of the House in all-too-justified fear for their lives.

But even after all this his followers continue to take his word for it that the election was stolen, and a large number of Republican lawmakers persist in challenging the validity of the result. And still a crowd in West Palm Beach cheered him for giving them their ‘freedom’.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon, a similar downgrading of truth has infected public life in England. In his new book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Peter Oborne says “I have been a political reporter for almost three decades, and I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”

Once again, the significant thing for me is how little Johnson’s supporters seem to mind. As William Davies comments in his review of Oborne’s book, “In a sane world this would be a political obituary”. He continues, “The question is why [this catalogue of proven lies]—and books such as this—do [Johnson] so little harm.” And his explanation is like the beginning of my own: “[in the contemporary world] where our honesty and character are constantly being tracked by managers, credit-raters, customers and one another, there is a certain relief in the spectacle of the outrageous leader who seems immune. ”

OK, Johnson and Trump are ‘outrageous leaders’, and huge numbers of people love them for it. I suggest it is because they have released their followers from long subjugation to Tyrant Truth.

Immunisation

Pulling these threads together, it is clear that something in the modern world has unleashed a terrible anarchy. It is one of the greatest threats to democracy, to civilisation, and even to humanity itself. But social distancing isn’t going to work this time.

Currently there is a wave of wild disinformation threatening to hamper the anti-Covid vaccination effort. In an attempt to raise herd immunity to this virus, Cambridge University has released a free computer game Go-Viral which tutors you in the tricks commonly used to make lies spread. They have evidence that seeing it from the inside like this increases people’s real-life resistance to misinformation, making them less likely to pass it on, and so breaking the cycle. Give it a try—I learned a lot.

Another sign that the fightback has begun is the main op-ed in today’s Guardian (9th Feb), by Timothy Garton Ash, What are facts? What is fake news? A new battle is coming. He emphasises the vital role of the independent press and responsible public service broadcasting.

The BBC itself has tended to fail in this solemn duty through seeing its news service in terms of entertainment. Controversy is another trigger button for viral spread, which I omitted from my list above, and BBC producers love it. For years they kept the aging fossil-fuel lobbyist (and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer) Nigel Lawson on hand to ‘balance’ any new call for action by an eminent climate scientist who had spent a whole career in the field, and to undermine the urgent message with blatantly untrue claims. I remember hearing one such programme when they actually gave Lawson the last word. No wonder climate change denial is still rife today.

It will be evident from references in this post that I subscribe to two independent newspapers, the Guardian and the New York Times. Both are free of political or billionaire sponsorship and they depend entirely on voluntary support from ordinary people. I see it as a public duty to do my bit, and I hope anyone reading this feels the same. The motto of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is ‘Comment is Free, Facts are Sacred’.

The ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth. The greatest lie of all is that Truth does not exist. And the greatest Truth of all is that Truth does exist, and that it can be known.

And that’s the truth.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1819

PS – It will be apparent to anyone who has read this far that this post has lacked any of the buttons which make for viral spread. Except perhaps Controversy, but we shall see. I rarely get more than a handful of readers for my posts, except for the two I’ve done since President Biden’s election. But I would dearly love to hear what people think of this one, so any comments would be really welcome. Please don’t be shy. I’ll try to write something lighter next time, with nice pictures. And jokes. But now I have everything else to get back to.

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

Read more…

ACAN – making a difference.

One year ago Alton Climate Action & Network did not exist. This post is an account of how much has been achieved since then – of our ambitious plans for the future – and of how much we believe there must be a future. (It also explains why I haven’t written much else here recently.)

It’s not that climate-change awareness wasn’t already alive in our town. Following our long-established town Greening campaign and our 2015 rally in support of that November’s COP21 Paris Climate Talks, Energy Alton last March organised a door-to-door survey of popular attitudes to climate change. This demonstrated widespread concern and willingness to make changes (albeit small ones, and largely focusing on single-use plastic).

The same month The Alton Society, Alton Local Food Initiative, and Energy Alton combined to show the powerful French film Demain (Tomorrow). This inspired those of us who saw it with the urgency of the need for action and showed just how much local initiatives can have far-reaching effects.

So, a small action group formed and began to sign up supporters, to set up a database of individual and group contacts, and to establish a public profile. My wife was a member of this core group and I became involved, not just because of my obvious sympathy, but because I knew how to set up things like email accounts, altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com and social media accounts, for which we used the handle @altonclimate on Facebook and Twitter.

I was also asked to use my experience with a Desk Top Publishing program to try out some designs for a logo. After playing around with various ideas I came up with this combination of font, colouring and background image that seemed, largely by happy chance, to work rather nicely.

Meanwhile, the core group set about building on the unprecedented impact on public consciousness that had been generated that Spring by the triple-whammy of peaceful Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the extraordinary Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, and the outspoken broadcast by David Attenborough. So the group began a Climate Awareness Stall at the Farmers’ Market in the High Street and appearances on our local Wey Valley Radio, both to continue monthly thereafter.

In June things really hotted up. We advertised the existence of the new group though an editorial for Round & About magazine, delivered free through every door in the area, and we paid for a multi-page ‘Green pull-out’ in the Town’s newspaper, The Alton Herald.

The banner I designed for the front page of the Alton Herald’s ‘Green pull-out’

And we ran a stall at the Town Council’s Community Fayre in the public gardens that month.

Open meeting flyer

But the big event was on the 17th with the Inaugural Open Meeting in the Alton Assembly Rooms. Our Chair, Jenny Griffiths, did the welcome, before introducing a trio of deliberately short presentations. One speaker gave a frank but ultimately optimistic view of the crisis facing the natural world, a second spoke powerfully from the perspective of Extinction Rebellion activism, and our County Councillor, Andrew Joy, had come straight from a Cabinet meeting in Winchester with the incredibly-timely news that they had decided that very morning to recommend to the full Council the immediate declaration of a state of climate emergency.

Discussion Groups. For the rest of the meeting everyone moved to their favoured topic labels fixed to the walls, and then spread out into discussion groups, some of which overflowed onto the lawn around the war memorial outside.

  • Green Spaces
  • Food
  • Less Stuff
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Building Standards
  • Lobbying
  • Information and Outreach

These are a couple of the pictures I took of the meeting, which I put together with some video and subsequently posted as a short movie sequence on our Facebook page. (I seem to be able to post it here as well!)

In July we attended meetings by both District Council and County Council to lobby in support of their respective, successful, proposals for the declaration of climate emergency.

For those who are strangers to the bizarre way we organise local government in England: a town of 16,000 population like Alton has its own Town Council, with limited power, which is subject to a District Council (East Hampshire – population 120,000 – based in Petersfield) which is subject to a County Council (Hampshire – population 1.4 million – based in Winchester) which is subject to National Government – population 56 million – based in London. Got that?

The AVLAN garden leaflet

In August the Green Spaces group, which had by then transmogrified into Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (AVLAN), produced a popular wildlife-friendly gardening leaflet. Which I put together on my computer.

We had a friendly and productive meeting with our elected Councillors at District and County levels, getting to know each other and establishing relationships of mutual respect.

Our window sticker

And we produced a centre-spread feature for Round & About magazine which included a ‘Climate Aware Household‘ window sticker.

For this I used the old drone image of the Alton Climate Rally which we held in 2015 in support of that year’s crucial COP21 Paris Climate talks. Slightly cheaty to split it in half and do a semi-repeat for the top, but again, it seemed to work.

In September the Food Group began a course of cooking instruction classes, majoring in ecologically-sound ingredients.

Cook and Eat together ad.

The take-up was small, but there was great enthusiasm, and in retrospect the team reckoned that through secondary contacts they had reached around a hundred different people.

Next we met with Gilbert White Museum in Selborne to discuss joint approaches to GW300 – celebrating the 300th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth.

The Lobbying and Campaigning group, under my all-too inadequate chairmanship, lobbied key figures in the District Council to take the ‘Golden opportunity to incorporate strong environmental standards in the redraft of the local plan (currently under way)’. But with little apparent effect. 1,000 new homes are being imposed on Alton and there isn’t a solar panel in sight! Still less a heat pump.

And on the 20th we organised a popular demonstration in the market square in support of the International Children’s Strike. The photo I took from the window of the Town Hall was used to dominate the front page of that week’s Alton Herald, which, significantly, carried a supportive editorial feature inside.

My photo – and with a strongly supportive editorial feature inside.

October was another active month, when another subgroup brought its plans for a Repair Cafe to fruition.

I discovered an unsuspected talent for mending clocks. No matter how simple the repair (the one above required nothing more than cleaning up corroded battery terminals) the owners were, as you can see, over the moon with gratitude. It it continues to be an immensely rewarding monthly experience.

Our display in the town library

Also in October we contributed to Energy Alton‘s Home Energy Day, and mounted a display in the Town library.

In November we contributed more editorial material to Round & About magazine and set up our stall at the splendid Eco Fair at Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. Then my wife’s efforts with the Town Council to promote tree planting met with partial success as we assembled on one cold morning to be photographed with the Town Mayor and a developer around a suitably-labelled sapling that the latter had been persuaded to plant. A small beginning, but a beginning.

And the main event of November was our second open meeting, when the group leaders took it in turns to describe their achievements so far, before we split up to discuss how best to move things on in each area. ACAN sponsored a special running of the community bus to bring people to the meeting from the edges of the town, but this did not actually make a big contribution to what was another excellent and enthusiastic turnout.

December saw another key development – the opening of the Community Cupboard in a scout hut which was conveniently situated towards the more needy end of the town. For each session volunteers picked up unsold food from cooperating supermarkets (most of them quickly came on board) and handed it out to anyone who wanted it. Just after Christmas one store gave a whole batch of turkeys which had arrived too late for them to sell. They made sure that one of these, plus some vegetables, went to a woman who had literally no other food in her house.

So began 2020. January saw our members being asked to advise schools on making their grounds more wildlife-friendly and on two specific school projects – a ‘design an eco-hero’ competition, and an ‘eco-conference’.

The first of our columns in the Alton Herald

January also saw our website altonclimatenetwork.org.uk go live and the first of our regular two-weekly columns appear in the Alton Herald.

At the same time we saw our influence on our MP apparently reflected in these words from his new year message in the same paper:

We should be positive as we face the great challenges of the 2020s. Top of the list is climate change…

Ongoing activities throughout this time included establishing and maintaining positive relationships with all three layers of local government and with our MP. We continuously engaged with the public and spread the word in every way we could. When the occasion arose we promoted rail travel and other aspects of sustainable living by example. Sometimes we got evidence that people who had initially reacted with hostility to this sort of thing did eventually become more thoughtful.

Working with the District Council’s Climate Change Champion Cllr. Ginny Boxall, we are working to improve the planting of green spaces around the town to beautify it and improve biodiversity.

Sadly, it was necessary on a number of occasions to write letters to the local paper challenging climate science deniers. After debating whether these people’s missives, often immensely long and grossly misleading, were best ignored, we came to the view that, as had happened in the case of the organised denial of the link between smoking and diseases in the last century, they must never be left unanswered. So, along with other responsible correspondents, we did answer them. And the perpetrators often bounced back with further and even longer examples. And so it continues.

To some extent we have written to national media, including the BBC, mainly to congratulate them on the increased climate crisis coverage which so marked the year.

Not the least important of our functions is to provide mutual support to one another as we engage on a daily basis with the frightening realities of the climate crisis, and confront the intractability of its denial.

The big development for the future is the Community Hub. Thanks to generous donors and grants from town councillors, we have been able to hire a vacant room in the Community Centre for the coming year. There we intend to develop a whole range of our activities from a permanent base, as well as introducing new ones. As I write we know we have secured sufficient funding to go ahead, and, once again, I have been busy using my wholly-amateur skills designing a logo and a flyer.

Here is the second draft that I have just sent out to everyone for approval.:

To Reykjavik for the Nordic Congress of General Practice

Back home now after a week in Iceland. Primarily for The 20th Nordic Congress of General Practice, a huge event with 1,500 delegates in the magnificent new Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall for which I and four fellow GPs ran a workshop on the subject ‘Doctors as Social Activists’. Link to my presentation

Views of the astonishing Harpa conference centre

I was describing my efforts since retirement to challenge organised climate change denial. Link to my presentation

1,500 Nordic GPs coming out for coffee break from one of the plenary sessions in the main hall

This was the very opposite of a freebie because we paid all our own expenses and discovered, having dutifully followed the advice to book flights and accommodation well in advance, that all five of us would have to pay the £700 registration fee for the conference.

This was on top of Reykjavik being, with Tokyo, currently the most expensive capital city in the world, even without the devalued pound, so that everything – food, trips, entrance to exhibitions, goods in shops – was more than twice as expensive as at home. Nonetheless, Lesley and I gritted our teeth, tightened our belts (I lost 3½ lbs on the trip) and took the opportunity to see something of this fascinating country and its admirable people.


Apart from the conference we were lucky to be in Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Independence Day (from Denmark : 1944). In spite of a cold wind and intermittent downpours, the atmosphere was festive and friendly. We felt it a real privilege to be there. We heard the President give a speech and then an actress gave a beautiful recital of a poem in Icelandic. Then there was a parade to the fair-ground around the lake, where there were circus acts and the world’s oldest strong-man competition.


The houses and buildings in Reykjavik were extraordinarily varied, often brightly painted, and quite a few had large murals painted on them.


The famous Hallgrimskirkja cathedral dominated from the top of the city, It was striking outside, although the concrete was currently under repair – testifying to the extreme harshness of the climate. The inside was serenely beautiful, with the most magnificent modern organ I have ever seen, being played while we were there.


We were unlucky with the weather, but we shared a car for a day out to the Snaefellsjoekull National Park north of the city, and took a coach trip around the ‘Golden Circle’ on our last day – our only really sunny day.

The Golden Circle is very much a tourist route but you see the junction between the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates (separating at about a centimetre a year) at the Þingvellir National Park, the magnificent Gullfoss Falls, and the geysers at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area.

Everywhere you see beautiful blue lupins, apparently a recent, deliberate introduction to stabilise and enrich the soil (lupins of course being nitrogen-fixers) which are proliferating at an incredible rate and seem to be broadly welcomed.  You can see them in the foreground and in the hills in the picture bottom right above. We were told that the country was 85% covered by trees when the Vikings arrived, but they cut them all down for fuel, housing and ships.

 

One thing which surprised us was the sheer size of the country – more than 300 miles East to West and 200 North to South. So we only saw a small part close to Reykjavik.

And this yellow door was the entry to our little room, with its blind to make it dark when it ought to have been night.

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:

one

Two

This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

Our first impressions of owning an electric car

Our e-car
Our e-car. Note the distinctive running lights

Buying an electric car was something of an act of faith for us. There is still very little experience of them and even the dealer said it was only the second they had sold. A friend had shown us a Renault Zoe and his enthusiasm was infectious and persuasive, but we liked the fact that the new VW models have an option to charge from an ordinary 13 amp household plug.

But we didn’t, for example, know how well the electric VW would cope with hills. We were quite prepared for it to struggle a bit going up the steep incline from our garage to the road, and similarly on the steep zig-zag up the hill to where we live.

That just shows how little we had gleaned from our short test drive – we couldn’t have been more wrong. The way it gently, silently slips out of the garage and up onto the roadway, and the way it sweeps effortlessly up hills, absolutely ‘like the wind’, is a complete revelation and an intoxicating joy. We can’t resist going out at the slightest excuse to do it again. And we do that knowing that it isn’t costing anything at all: It doesn’t cause any noise; it doesn’t make any pollution. That’s because, charging on a reasonably sunny day, it draws less power than our solar panels are generating. So it  literally runs on the sunshine which would otherwise have heated up our roof tiles.  And – almost too obviously to point out – it doesn’t have an exhaust pipe, so it couldn’t emit exhaust gases if it tried.

With no gears the engine picks up strongly from rest and carries on pulling smoothly right through any amount of acceleration. This feels incomparably superior to the smoothest and most sophisticated of automatic gears. Apart from Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive you can select one further mode, B, by pressing momentarily on against a spring. This engages the recuperation system which, provided the battery isn’t absolutely fully charged (when there is presumably nowhere for the electricity to go), the motor operates in reverse when you lift off the accelerator, gently but increasingly-firmly retarding the car as it puts energy back into the battery. This means that 1) you rarely have to move your foot onto the brake pedal and 2) at the end of a long descent you find you have several miles more range than you had at the beginning.

It all takes a bit of getting your head round, something so new. The motoring journalists in the reviews I’ve seen missed it completely. The one in the Telegraph, although he said he liked the e-up!, seemed to think the only reason anyone would actually buy one would be to save money, and he declared the issue settled when he found that most people wouldn’t. No economic case at all: QED. It is hard to imagine him applying the same criterion to a Porsche – ten times as expensive and in my opinion ten times less fun. Not to mention immeasurably less sustainable. But then that would only count in the equation if he worried about sustainability, which as a rule motoring journalists tend not to.

So the general impression is that it is an incredibly refined vehicle, uncannily quiet and unfussy, and a complete joy to travel in. It is hard to pin down what is quite so special about it, but it reminds me of a trip I once had in a glider, or of that wonderful sense of peace you get in a sailing boat when you get out of the harbour and kill the engine. As you slow down and stop, the engine stops. Silent, still, cool. Cars whose engines keep running until you turn them off begin to look a bit ridiculous. It could be quite soon that people come to see the internal combustion engine as crude and unsophisticated, and those exhaust pipes – no less than four huge ones on a Lamborghini I saw in a service station the other day – as frankly disgusting.

Everybody asks about the range. Well, a full charge takes it just over 80 miles. Another ten or so if you change to Eco+, which turns off the air conditioning and restricts the speed until you do a deliberate kick-down with the accelerator. Eco mode is somewhere in between. In Normal mode the e-up! zooms along the motorway and keeps up with and overtakes almost anything if you want it to. The instrumentation tells you exactly how much power you are using and the range remaining all the time.

So, we already do return trips to towns 35 miles away in complete confidence. [ADDENDUM – this should really say ‘in summer, using Eco+ mode’ –  see note added at the bottom*]  We have yet to try, or need, a rapid-charging station on a longer journey, but the thoroughly-integrated Garmin ‘Info-tainment’ centre tells us where they are when we do. We are registered with Ecotricity  and we have our swipe card, and charging will be free and take up to twenty minutes. The VW models use the new CCS connector which is currently being installed in charging centres. As far as we can tell we can also use the more common Type 2 connector as well. But I will edit this post to give clearer details of the practicalities of using these stations as we find them out. This is where the lack of people experienced in using the technology is so apparent. There is certainly a pioneering element which is probably part of the fun.

For the time being I would have two major reservations – I do not think we have reached the point where electric cars are practical as an only car for people who need to make long journeys. The extra range of the VW e-Golf might make the necessary difference but I think that remains to be seen.  And secondly, you really do need a garage where you can keep and charge it. I see no solution at the moment for the many people who have to keep their car in the street, and not even in a fixed position outside their house.

Otherwise, I’ve seen the future, and it works…

* Further note on Range 24 August:
Yesterday evening we took four adults on a 63 mile round-trip to the theatre.

Starting  with a full charge and on Eco+ mode the indicated range was 98 miles. As we started home it was 48 miles – battery charge dial showing between half and three quarters full. About ten miles from home we changed to normal mode, turned on the heating and stormed up a couple of hills to show off the car. Arriving home there were 8 miles remaining range indicated.

Full statistics of the journeys, from the VW Car-net e-remote smartphone app:

Out (Daylight, late afternoon)
31 miles in 53 minutes av 35 mph
Av. e-motor consumption 4.1 mpkWh (miles per kilowatt hour)
Av. recuperation 19.5 mpkWh
Av. secondary consumption (heating/lights, etc) 155.4 mpwWh

Return (Dark, temperature  <10°C)
32 miles in 57 minutes, av 33 mph.
Av. e-motor consumption  4.0 mpkWh
Av. recuperation 18.3 mpkWh
Av. Secondary consumption 28.3 mpkWh

 

What are we doing to our climate? Some links for people attending my talk today…

As promised, here are some links for people who attended my talk at St Mary’s, Clapham on Wednesday 18 June, 2014

1. Hilarious video showing what a statistically valid ‘debate’ about climate change would actually look like: http://tinyurl.com/k5uslqx (4.9 million views and counting – updated January 2015))
Sending up the folly of ‘false balance’ in reporting of climate change issues by media such as Fox News and (disgracefully) the BBC:

2. IPCC reports : Climate Change 2014

The links take you to the menu for each report – I particularly recommend the videos, and especially the first one.

Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis http://preview.tinyurl.com/kfwycog

259 authors from 39 countries

Key messages:

  1. The warming of the Climate system is unequivocal
  2. Human influence on the climate system is clear
  3. Continued Greenhouse gas emissions will cause further climate change

“Therefore we conclude: Limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability http://tinyurl.com/nxk7lab

309 authors from 70 countries

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary

Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change http://tinyurl.com/nk68shs

235 authors from 57 countries

Global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by mid-century and further after that.

Complete transformation in the energy system – especially electricity generation.

The atmosphere is a common resource – free dump for greenhouse gases

We need a broad portfolio of approaches

3. The five stages of Climate denial (beautifully exemplified in the Murdoch press, including The Wall Street Journal ) http://tinyurl.com/lz2ltaj
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists   it does
Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause we are 2b: deny the scientific consensus it’s 97%
Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem it is
Stage 4: Deny we can solve it (too expensive, will hurt the poor, etc.) the exact opposite of the truth
Stage 5: Say it’s too late anyway it isn’t, quite, no thanks to Murdoch

4. Five pieces of ice news revealing earth’s ice cover is in serious decline http://tinyurl.com/qeo8dfe

  1. Antarctic ice melt is twice as fast as 10 years ago
  2. West Antarctic Glaciers are collapsing and it’s “unstoppable” – 2-3 metre sea level rise may take several centuries
  3. The Greenland Ice sheet could melt faster than previously thought
  4. Other ice caps and glaciers in the northern hemisphere are melting faster too
  5. Soot from forest fires contributed to unusually large Greenland surface melt in 2012

5. Northern hemisphere hits carbon dioxide milestone in April Reuter report 26 May http://tinyurl.com/l5aa4vy Read the denialists’ comments at the bottom if you’ve got a strong stomach.

New love affair

It takes time to get your head around having your own solar power.

Our PV roof panels were switched on three days ago and we have already generated (…gets up to look at the meter behind him on the wall…) 57.1 kilowatt hours. That’s much more power than we have used in that time. That’s a lot. Much more than I imagined.

Our system has a little bonus gizmo so that when we are not using all the power we generate (most of the time) the excess is fed automatically into the immersion heater in our hot water cylinder. So we switched off the gas boiler when the PV came on stream and we still have piping hot water for showers each morning. (That means zero energy cost, folks.)

But the thing which is so novel and which takes some really believing is that during the day we can use as much hot water as we like and there is absolutely no cost whatsoever – not to us and not to the planet: we are just using the heat from the sun that would have fallen on that part of the roof anyway.

Wow!

Why isn’t everyone doing this!

Another thing: When the energy performance certificate for our house was done just six months ago the assessor estimated that a 2.5kW solar array would cost future owners (i.e. us) between £9,000 and £14,000. In fact our state-of-the-art array, installed with meticulous care and attention to detail last week, actually cost us £6,500. And it generates 4kW, getting on for twice as much as that estimate, for less than half the price.

Bottom line – even the experts have not understood how quickly solar power is becoming hugely cost effective.

And our bottom line is the profound satisfaction we are getting. We even have a new electric lawnmower, which – wait for it – gets used in summer and always during the day – isn’t that just beautiful.

Our system was generating 1kW at 8.00 this morning and 1.3kW at 6.00 this evening. And it is early April in supposedly dark and dreary England. Isn’t that beautiful too!

Oh yes, it peaked at just over 3kW. Eight panels on the East sloping roof and another eight on the West.

Am I becoming a  bore? Not to me. It’s wonderful!

My message to skeptics for Climate Week 2014

For at least three decades and with increasing urgency scientists throughout the world have been warning about dangers to the future of civilisation if we do not take radical steps to reduce carbon emissions.

You think the chance of them being right is smaller than I do, but we both accept that the chance exists. But in this particular case the warnings are so dire, are being voiced by such an overwhelming majority of scientists, and the consequences are so momentous, that for either of us to actively oppose the precautions being urged would be irresponsibility of the highest order.

However, for anyone to oppose these precautionary steps deliberately, by knowingly misrepresenting the science, or by deliberately setting out to undermine the scientists involved, in order to further the short-term interests of individuals or corporations with vested interests in maintaining the present course, would surely be a new kind of crime against humanity.

That is why people like me are passionate about the evil of organised climate change denial.

James A R Willis   Retired GP, Author, Grandfather

Climate Week 2014

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