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.

Protecting the River Wey in Alton

written by Glen Skelton and Jenny Griffiths

A group of 14 volunteers from Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (part of Alton Climate Action & Network – ACAN) is working with Glen Skelton, the Wetland Landscapes Officer from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to protect and improve the health of the River Wey in Alton.

River volunteers

Glen has trained the volunteers in how to check for pollution incidents and get them investigated. Through Riverfly surveys, they will also track changes in the numbers of riverflies in the river, such as mayfly and caddisfly larvae and freshwater shrimp. They can then help to restore the river in those areas with low numbers of these insects, the areas that need the most urgent help.

Celebrating our river – a chalk stream

The River Wey has only two sources – we are fortunate that one is in Alton. The Wey runs from Alton all the way to the Thames at Weybridge. The North Wey between Alton and Farnham is the only part of the River Wey that is a chalk stream. Chalk streams are so important – there are only about 200 in the world, and 85% of them are in the southern half of England. They are one of Earth’s rarest habitats. Chalk streams are full of gin-clear alkaline-rich water which comes from springs in the chalk aquifer – water stored underground, with a stable temperature all year round. The river bed is gravel or chalk with shallow banks and an abundance of aquatic plants.

‘Gin-clear’ water

Their headwaters dry up in warmer months (known as a “winterbourne”).

Pressures and problems

Unfortunately all is not well with Alton’s river. Alton is a built-up area and this causes pollution of the river from sewage, road run-off and even dishwashers connected up to the wrong drain. Pollutants bring unwanted nutrients into the river causing algal blooms, which starve the river of oxygen and kill fish and insect life.

On the outskirts of the town, soil run-off from fields gets into the river after heavy rain and flooding, often travelling down roads. The sediment covers the river bed gravels, smothering aquatic plants and invertebrates. Sediment also transports pesticides and fertilizers again causing suffocating algal blooms. The headwater streams that feed into the main river, such as the Caker stream, are important spawning sites for migratory fish such as the brown trout. The eggs need lots of oxygen, but get smothered by the sediment. The fields at the top of Brick Kiln Lane have been releasing large amounts of sediment into the river during this winter’s rains turning it brown and smothering the gravel.

Soil running off from fields and down Brick Kiln Lane…

The impact of this could clearly be seen at Flood Meadows

…and into the source of the river Wey half a mile away.

We need to work with landowners to keep soil on their fields, encouraging the use of herb- rich field edges to trap soil run off or planting crops which hold the soil together in the winter months.

Kings Pond

Kings Pond, Alton

Kings Pond collects all of the sediment coming downstream and is slowly filling up. Also the large amount of food thrown in to feed the water fowl creates a nutrient-rich soup which damages the river. This has been picked up in Riverfly surveys which have shown low numbers of invertebrates in the river downstream of the pond. In an ideal world we would find a way to bypass the river around Kings Pond, allowing plant and invertebrate species downstream to bounce back.

Climate Change

Headwater streams are the first to be affected by climate change. As our world gets warmer, springs are drying up earlier each year. Ancient populations of brown trout

An ‘important’ brown trout

that have been isolated in headwaters for millennia are starting to get into trouble as flows decrease and waters warm up. These trout are so important for helping to renew trout populations reduced by pollution downstream.

Re-naturalising the river

The river in Alton has been straightened in many places. The uniform channels lack variation in flows and deeper water crucial to support a range of different species, and they offer little refuge for fish species to escape predators. Overwide channels also drop sediment during low flows. But we can help. Creating a more sinuous channel through the use of berms (barriers) can help to speed up flows, cleaning the gravels and helping aquatic plants to re-establish, supporting fish and invertebrate life. The Wildlife Trust and volunteers have already re- naturalised the river in this way at both the Lamports and Flood Meadows. AVLAN is open to all and welcomes new volunteers at any time. Get in touch through the ACAN website www.altonclimatenetwork.org.uk or email altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com , or contact us through AVLAN’s Facebook page.

Posted here on behalf of the Riverfly partnership.

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.:

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:

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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’.

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