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Mass Death Dies Hard
Tuesday 13th June 2017

Bending their efforts to sensationalise the news on a scale previously unknown even in their scrappy history, the mass media have helped to consolidate a pernicious myth. But they could not have done this so thoroughly without the accident that they are the main source of information and opinion for people in the academic world and in the scientific institutions. Few of those people have been reading the sceptical blogs: they have no time. If I myself had not been so ill during the relevant time-span, I might not have been reading them either, and might have remained confined within the misinformation system where any assertion of forthcoming disaster counts as evidence. The effect of this mountainous accumulation of sanctified alarmism on the academic world is another subject. Some of the universities deserve to be closed down, but I expect they will muddle through, if only because the liberal spirit, when it regains its strength, is likely to be less vengeful than the dogmatists were when they ruled. Finding that the power of inertia blesses their security as once it blessed their influence, the enthusiasts might have the sense to throttle back on their certitude, huddle under the blanket cover provided by the concept of "post-normal science", and wait in comfort to be forgotten.

As for the learned societies and professional institutions, it was never a puzzle that so many of them became instruments of obfuscation instead of enlightenment. Totalitarianism takes over a state at the moment when the ruling party is taken over by its secretariat: the tipping point is when Stalin, with his lists of names, offers to stay late after the meeting and take care of business. The same vulnerability applies to any learned institution at all. Rule by bureaucracy favours mediocrity, and in no time at all you are in a world where Julia Slingo is a figure of authority, and Judith Curry is fighting to breathe. Under Stalin, Trofim Lysenko became more indispensible the more he reduced all the other biologists to the same condition as Soviet agriculture, and even after Stalin was dead, it took Andrei Sakharov to persuade Khrushchev not to bring Lysenko back to office. Khrushchev was well aware that Lysenko was a charlatan, but he looked like an historic force; and who argues with one of those?

On a smaller scale of influential prestige, Lord Stern lends the Royal Society the honour of his presence. For those of us who regard him as a vocalised stuffed shirt, it is no use saying that his confident pronouncements about the future are only those of an economist. Vaclav Klaus was only an economist when he tried to remind us that Malthusian clairvoyance is invariably a harbinger of totalitarianism. But Klaus was a true figure of authority. Alas, true figures of authority are in short supply, and tend not to have much influence when they get to speak.

All too often, this is because they care more about science than about the media. As recently as 2015, after a full ten years of nightly proof that this particular scientific dispute was a media event before it was anything, Freeman Dyson was persuaded to go on television. He was up there just long enough to say that the small proportion of carbon dioxide that was man-made could only add to the world's supply of plant food. The world's mass media outlets ignored the footage, mainly because they didn't know who he was. I might not have known either if I hadn't spent, in these last few years, enough time in hospitals to have it proved to me on a personal basis that real science is as indispensible for modern medicine as cheap power. Among his many achievements, to none of which he has ever cared about drawing attention, Dyson designed the TRIGA reactor. The TRIGA ensures that the world's hospitals get a reliable supply of isotopes.

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August 15th, 2017
9:08 PM
Excellent work Clive James. Now please challenge our Monbiot to a debate on this - a written one of course.

Peter Houlding
June 19th, 2017
7:06 AM
Nor will a science degree protect you from "illogic (sic), ideology and ignorance". Ad hominem attacks such as this by Ms Salzman - a person whose right to speak on environmental matters seems to be derived from her anti-nuclear fanaticism and a possible interest in birds - don't advance her cause. She demonstrates every attribute of the climate alarmist, unable to distinguish between faith and evidence, and translating "climate denial" into a vast right-wing conspiracy theory.

June 19th, 2017
12:06 AM
Really, Lorna Salzman? Nothing in his piece makes sense? Did you actually read it or are you just one of those trolls who turn up whenever a journalist steps out of line and questions the (by now legendary) climate change/global warming consensus and scream "denier, denier, denier" in the hope of shutting down debate? So much of the media is on your side and treats the consensus as unquesionable so why the frenzied reaction? You are behaving exactly like the "time is running out" brigade that Clive James is writing about. It is also a bit odd that you claim to hate the left then blame capitalism for destroying the planet.

Peter Houlding
June 17th, 2017
10:06 PM
Salzman strikes another blow for boredom, with the same alarmist pitch, and the same absence of logic possessed by her alarmist teammates. For the record, politics and science should be mainly separate things, with policy being influenced by science rather than (as matters are now) pseudo-science influencing policy. It's very clear that Mr James is better-informed on the real science than is Salzman. The comment on "the once beautiful mind" is a vicious canard. And Salzman should take her - always mediocre - mind back to the American Birds Magazine.

robert quinn
June 16th, 2017
1:06 PM
What's your "contrary scenario?" Nuking all those coal-fired power generators in China and India?

Lorna Salzman
June 14th, 2017
12:06 AM
You don't have to have a science degree to recognize illogic, ideology and ignorance. Clive James puts these on full view. Nothing in his piece makes sense nor is it even factual: he suggests the climate movement is a leftist war, not knowing that the traditional left long scorned environmental issues, dismissing them as political and social constructions and failures rather than actual science- and material-based pollution and injury. Hating the left (as I personally do) does not mean going over to the dark side of climate denial. James has picked out his political alignment carefully and then signed on to all of the right wing's distortions, lies and dismissal of the in=our=face evidence that grows every day. James deplores pessimism and claims about the "death" of the planet by saying: well, it's OK this minute so what's the problem? Clive, the earth won't be dead until it's dead, like the fat lady singing. Your Climate Denial teammates are denying everything not because there is no evidence but because they see global capitalism fast going under. Capitalism based on ever-increasing consumption of resources and energy is not sustainable and the end is quite visible at the end of a shortening tunnel. The right wing and neo cons are desperate to continue Business as Usual, i.e. capitalism and growth. A contrary scenario or roadblock will be fought tooth and nail. But the countdown is approaching faster than their favored solutions and so all they can do is deny, deny, deny. More's the pity that your once beautiful mind is going to waste. You've bet on the wrong horse. Consider in your bowels that you may be wrong, as someone once said.

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