Monday, February 28, 2011

In denial

I have just finished reading James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore's excellent Climate Cover-up, an analysis of the methods of climate change deniers written by the creators of DeSmog Blog. The difference between this and the many other books around at the moment is that it examines the campaign itself, rather than the science. Surprised to see the sudden emergence of dissent, often from people with little or no experience in climate science, at the very moment that decades of detailed research had coalesced into a mainstream scientific consensus about the nature, causes and consequences of climate change, the authors spotted something that was firmly within their area of expertise - a public relations exercise.

They found that underlying the denial movement was a campaign, often using the same techniques, and sometimes the same people, that had been used by tobacco companies to obfuscate the links between smoking and health. And the motivation was also the same. It was instigated by corporations, in this case the energy companies, to limit the impact of scientific evidence on public policy that they perceived as a threat to their interests. Rather than seeing a real controversy Hogan and Littlemore identified the existence of a highly professional campaign of disinformation.

The basis of this campaign was not alternative scientific research, the book points out that the industries' private investigations confirmed the scientific consensus, nor was it attempting to prove that human-made global warming did not exist. What it was trying to do was to create an impression that there was no consensus amongst scientists, that a debate still existed and, by doing so, attempt to forestall and delay political actions on climate change that could damage their profits. Once such an impression was established, the media's fetish with 'balance' would ensure that reports would include 'both sides of the argument', increasing the impression of doubt and debate despite it being, in reality, entirely absent amongst the experts.

The technique they used is simple, but very clever. The first move is to start an "astroturf campaign". This is a neat way of describing the creation of an artificial grass-roots movement. It is done by mass letter writing, emailing, article writing, blogging, etc. It is no use at this stage trying to get things published in the national press, instead they targeted local and regional media. These are likely to be more open to the material than better resourced and staffed publications and to accept items that more prestigious organisations would probably reject at this stage. A growing presence in local reporting and secondary media provides the basis for gaining a national presence.

Secondly, they created an "echo chamber". That involved setting up a range of organisations that would repeat and confirm the assertions. Tame experts were hired and oil money poured into existing and new think tanks with impressive titles, if far less impressive levels of scientific respectability. And this is where the campaigners struck gold. The arguments against the scientific consensus gained a life of their own, not through the cynical espousal of a corporate agenda but through wholehearted, utterly honest and obsessively passionate believers that sixty-years of detailed, empirical research amounted either to a massive conspiracy to distort the truth or to a colossal error made simultaneously by thousands of scientists, an error exposed, in the best tradition of much popular entertainment, by some enterprising amateurs, a whole raft of Miss Marples confounding the experts by their superior powers of deduction.

When the book deals with some of the issues themselves it points out that the main case against the scientific consensus consists of 'zombie arguments'. These are ideas and supposed evidence that have been put forward, fully examined, shown to be false, firmly laid to rest, yet are still bouncing around the echo chamber as if they had never been contested. The standards applied to the undead are not those applied to mainstream climate science where self-confessed errors of detail and continuing areas of uncertainty are misrepresented as totally invalidating the whole thesis.

What the book can't explain is the success of denial, where polling evidence suggests substantial minorities in the developed world now favour its arguments and political movements, such as much right libertarianism, have uncritically adopted it as their orthodoxy. Why has something constructed as an echo chamber turned into a hugely amplified loudspeaker system? All Hoggan and Littlemore can do is register their alarm and astonishment that something so empirically flawed should actually be growing rather than diminishing.

I suppose we should really expect this. Whenever we see a threat there is always a movement of counter-intuitive, reassuring ideas that deny either the importance of that threat or sometimes its very existence. Let's look at an historical example, the peace movement in inter-war Britain. It is impossible to deny that pacifism is both serious and deeply moral. It is an expression of a physical revulsion at the horror and brutality of war, reflects a deep conviction that its evils undermine any good that may emerge and that it needs to be eradicated by non-violent action. Necessarily, it is a minority movement. When Orwell wrote that "pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist" he was being unfair. Pacifism abhors fascism, militarism, imperialism, dictatorship and all the vehicles by which war is manufactured. What he was right about was that the consequences of a policy informed by pacifism would have ensured the triumph of the Nazis.

In the 1930's pacifism broke out of being a tiny sect and entered the mainstream. The Peace Pledge Union was formed after a letter by Rev Dick Sheppard in the Guardian (where else?) invited people to write in and pledge that they would "renounce war and never again support another." Hundreds of thousands of people eventually did so. And this movement too was built on denial, the roots of which lay in an entirely rational fear. What was being denied here was the real nature of the Nazis and the horrible sacrifices that were necessary if they were to be defeated. Hard core pacifists did not duck the issue, but the bulk of the supporters were drawn into a form of magical thinking, that their moral purity would somehow spare them from the attentions of Hitler by touching his reasonableness and humanity. It took fifty million corpses to prove them wrong.

And this is the whole point about denial in all forms, it only really takes off when the threat is real. Only then do we see something marginal begin to move into the mainstream. The book recounts how, as the evidence piles up, climate change deniers are shifting their attention to the promotion of ameliorative technologies as an alternative to reducing emissions or even arguing that global warming will be beneficial, anything to avoid facing the consequences of dealing with the causes of a warming world. Caught between helplessness and hedonism people turn away and, to paraphrase Orwell, sleep the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the lapping waters of rising seas.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Soft bigotry

It isn't as obscene as Daniel Ortega's reported comments in Nicaragua, that Gadaffi '"is again waging a great battle" to defend the unity of his nation', but the slow, equivocal and hesitant response by Western governments to the risings in the Middle East has disappointed. Today the main political row is about whether the government has acted quickly enough to get British nationals out of Libya, rather than the failure to apply sanctions and enforce a no-fly zone as the anti-Gaddafi forces are calling for.

In addition, the welcome given to the successful revolutions has hardly been ecstatic. This isn't just because the overturned regimes were, embarrassingly, strong allies and reliable customers for the weapons that they used to keep their people downtrodden, there is also a note of caution about what comes next. It seemed that every news broadcast I watched during the Egyptian revolution raised the question as to whether this was to pave the way for an Islamic state (ignoring the demonstrations against just such a state in Iran), despite the vehement declarations of the protesters that this was not the case. Now the discussion is more about the danger of power vacuums. These, of course, were some of the justifications for support that the dictatorships offered the West - it is us or something worse. Although, looking at the events in Libya, you have to wonder what on earth could be worse. Gadaffi's rehabilitation over recent years has been one of the most odious pieces of Realpolitik I can recall.

So why should this be? In this piece Issandr El Amrani resurrects a wonderful phrase, "the soft bigotry of lowered expectations", to explain the West's uncertainty.
For several decades, there has been a soft bigotry of lowered expectations in the west and among Arab elites about the Arab world. The prevalent thinking about this region of over 300 million souls is that it offered no fertile ground for democracy, either because democracy risked bringing political forces hostile to western interests or because democracy is not a value that has much currency in the region.
The phrase was originally used in an educational context. I recognise precisely what it describes and the resultant damage to the confidence of some of the amazing people I have taught in adult education, where our job was one of reconstruction and encouragement. I expected wonderful things from my students and was rarely disappointed. Shouldn't we be feeling the same about the new opposition to the vile kleptocratic dictatorships that litter the Middle East? Shouldn't these democratic risings, these demands for freedom, be unalloyed good news? Isn't it possible to argue that the protests are evidence of the defeat of theocracy in many parts of the Arab world, its marginalisation and its irrelevance to the aspirations of the people?

Of course there are real dangers of the revolutions being betrayed, though that is less likely if more international support is forthcoming. But El Amrani puts it beautifully:
Libyans are not condemned to be ruled by Gaddafis for eternity; Moroccans do not have to settle for an absolute monarchy, no matter how enlightened. Encouraged by their neighbours' example, they have higher expectations for their future, and so should you.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creativity against nihilism

In this context, the opposite of nihilism is creativity. The mood for change, the hunger for individual freedom that is spreading through the Middle East, is an opportunity more than it is a threat. When Egyptians decide en masse to reform their society and think constructively, and take responsibility for their nation into their own hands, they will be less inclined to blame outsiders for all their misfortunes. This is precisely the time to restart the peace process. The new situation demands bold creative political thinking, not a retreat to the sourness of the bunker mentality, or an advance behind yet more concrete.
Ian McEwan

Read it all
- yes, you really should read it all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Only one

The gallery is described as "the barracks where Adolf Hitler began his rise to power". As the old ditty would have it, the main exhibit of a single red ball seems rather appropriate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The people's sport

At least the prices hit the headlines. The European Champions League final is to be held at Wembley this year and the cheapest seat available on open sale is £176. This is the cue for interminable meanderings about queuing up to pay 2/6d to watch Best, Law and Charlton - not that I saw much, short stature and shallow terracing had a lot to answer for in those days. Some things have got better. We used to sneer at 'armchair supporters' who would only watch on TV, now that is all many of us are able to do, simply because of the cost. But this is not my main complaint. If you look at the ticket allocations, 25,000 seats out of 90,000 in total have been set aside for corporate hospitality. Each one of those marks a real fan excluded to make way for a corporate junket. Something about it makes me feel queasy.

It was a sharp contrast spending a freezing afternoon at the Willows watching Swinton beat one of the pre-season favourites for promotion, Oldham, in a thrilling game of open, running Rugby League. Swinton spread the ball wide and overran the opposition with great tries only to be slowly pegged back by a second-half comeback as Oldham pulled their game together with some devastating attacking kicks and the aid of a heavy penalty count in their favour. Swinton held out and clinched the game with a fine 79th minute try to win 29-20. This was a real people's game, it is just that there aren't that many people. A crowd of 776 risked hypothermia to see it, actually an improvement on the last couple of seasons. I reckon that those few got it right, people forking out for the Premiership don't know the treat they are missing.

See the tries here

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


George has been reading Fanny Hill.
Many years since I first read the latter and pleased to come, if that's the right word, upon passages like:

...and pleasure milked, over-flowed me once more from the fulness of his oval reservoirs of the genial emulsion...

That, sir, is pornography with proper eighteenth-century cojones, which is to say prose with oval reservoirs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day massacre

Of adult education that is. Glasgow University's Department of Adult and Continuing Education is the next to be lined up against the wall. The rifles are cocked, but instead of meekly smoking a last fag and accepting their fate they have torn off the blindfold and are fighting back - through Facebook. Well, it worked in Egypt.

Once again a round of cuts have left adult education vulnerable and deemed to be disposable. And once again adult educators struggle to find the words to justify what we do in a sector awash with managerial jargon and macho posturing. The staff from Glasgow got it right when they commented,
It's also about control. They want to control what is being taught and Dace is far too free, far too 'lawless'.
The problem the authorities have with us adult educators is not that we are outlaws who roam the hills ready to ambush the unsuspecting and rob them of their treasured possessions. Instead, we do something different, something that is poorly understood and that is often beyond the comprehension of the powerful. Adult education is not just valued by its students, it is loved. Tutors have to be stupidly dedicated and ridiculously flexible to make it happen. Organisers have to be creative and entrepreneurial. I suppose that makes management think that we are rather letting the side down.

Flippancy aside, the depressing thing about the strange death of liberal adult education is that it is taking place within an intellectual vacuum. There is little debate about what a university is for beyond the latest slogans. Adult education always stood for a different vision of the university as an open and inclusive institution. And I suppose that this is not a case we have made that well, often struggling to find utilitarian justifications rather than parading our idealism. It may be time to make a stand on principle. Who knows whether it will be our Tahrir Square moment or another re-enactment of the Somme, though I can't help thinking that all our efforts will be met with condescension and indifference and it will be a new generation that will one day have to rediscover what should never have been cast aside in the first place.

Thanks to Shuggy

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Changing times

It appears that the army has chosen sides and the rumours of the impending resignation of Mubarak has propelled Egypt back into the lead story on the news. The protests may have been growing but the coverage shrank, assuming that people have the attention span of a gnat. Meanwhile the conservative commentariat have been brushing up their pessimism and talking up the threat of a new Iran in Egypt. So this interesting piece of analysis is well worth reading.
...the ascendant socio-political power of a new national-development-oriented coalition of businessmen and military entrepreneurs, as well as the decisive force of micro-enterprise and workers’ organizations consisting of women and youth -- a force that portends well for the future of democracy and socio-economic inclusion in Egypt
Read it all and, if it really is the endgame, celebrate a people's ability to overthrow a tyrant.

Keep the champagne on ice.

HT Nick

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Common sense

There are further signs of trouble for the Big Society, Cameron's pet project. The Economist points out:
I knew the government was in real trouble on Tuesday, when the Daily Telegraph's revered "Matt" drew a front page pocket cartoon of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet locked out of a privatised Hundred Acre Woods. As a rule of thumb, when the country's most loyally Conservative newspaper accuses a Conservative government of hurting Winnie the Pooh, things are going badly wrong.
In this case it is the privatisation of woodland that is under discussion. Library cuts, a by-product of reductions in local government expenditure, are also getting a bad press with campaigns being set up, whilst today has been declared Save Our Libraries Day.

Clearly, the government is having problems selling their ideas and the difficulties are not merely presentational, they go to the heart of the project. Here is the Economist again.
...the public is mistrustful of any vision for Britain that blends altruism with the profit motive. And that is a big problem for the Big Society, which just does not add up if it does not include a dose of private enterprise.
This gets to the nub of the matter whilst simultaneously missing the point. Public suspicions are not simply to do with the profit motive, despite the past evidence of the personal enrichment of executives as a consequence of previous privatisations, I think that they are rooted much more in the question of the ownership of common property.

I have blogged before about the closure of the much loved College of Adult Education in Manchester and pointed out that the sense of ownership felt by staff and students was a chimera, despite the College being publicly owned. This is the feeling that millions of library users are getting right now as they face the loss of their local libraries up and down the country. Just like the College, many libraries had been built up by voluntary action and donations, sometimes over a period of a hundred years or more, before being adopted by local authorities. This move into the public sector offered protection and further investment beyond the abilities of private citizens to provide and it was a success until the cuts came. When that happened, those years of investment counted for nothing. Something that had once belonged to the community was no longer theirs and could be disposed of at will.

If this shows the limits of public ownership, you can multiply the problem of alienation many times over for private ownership. A privatisation that hands public assets over to a restricted group of individuals or corporate entities is a process of enclosure, taking what had once been the collective property of a community and turning it into the disposable assets of those who are unconcerned with the common good, except where it enhances their private well-being. Municipalisation allowed the exercise of limited control through the ballot box, privatisation removes both ownership and control. Of course people are suspicious. They are right to be.

The Big Society is certainly shrinking the state, but it is not growing civil society. And trashing the infrastructure that supports a network of voluntary and independent action is hardly the way to promote it. Ironically, a real Big Society initiative would not be cheap, certainly not in the short-term. It would involve investment in local facilities, supporting voluntary sector organisations and funding professionals to deliver services. And at its centre has to be a concept of communal ownership that is inalienable, the re-establishment of the commons, implying too a partnership with the state in a long-term commitment. If this was the case we might see a warmer welcome for the idea. Today suspicions seem only too well founded.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Trivial pursuits

For the first time for ages I came out of a Swinton Rugby League match having enjoyed myself. Not for the first time in ages Swinton lost, but narrowly (22-28) to Halifax in the Northern Rail Cup. Halifax are the Championship champions, the top side outside Super League and a division higher than the Lions. It was a thriller that could have gone either way. What a start to the ground share at the Willows. Could this be a promotion season to go with a new ground back in Swinton? Here's hoping.

The words of a protester

A moving and chilling post from Egypt
The End is near. I have no illusions about this regime or its leader, and how he will pluck us and hunt us down one by one till we are over and done with and 8 months from now will pay people to stage fake protests urging him not to leave power, and he will stay "because he has to acquiesce to the voice of the people". This is a losing battle and they have all the weapons, but we will continue fighting until we can't.
I hope he is wrong.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Changing times

There is a lot of commentary on Egypt filling the press. These two had something distinctive to say. First there is Hitchens:
People do not like to be treated like fools, or backward infants, or extras in some parade. There is a natural and inborn resistance to such tutelage, for the simple-enough reasons that young people want to be regarded as adults, and parents can't bear to be humiliated in front of their children ...

...The whole lumbering apparatus of the Egyptian state conspired to make itself appear humorless and thuggish and to convince its people that they were being held as serfs by fools.
Then there is a moment of sanity and clarity from the ever optimistic Gershon Baskin exploring the consequences of the uprising for Egypt's future relations with Israel.
The future of Israel is not linked to the corrupt, nondemocratic regimes which we prefer to call “moderate” Arab states, but to the masses of people who are willing to take to the streets to demand their rights. When we understand that correctly, we will make peace with Palestine, we will have real democracy and we will be a lot more secure.