A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Ah! Alex K. in wishful mode.....

Now my old pal, Alex Kirby, is an excellent reporter and the most genuine of chaps. His stuff is far more balanced than most, but here I believe he has allowed himself just a smidgen too much wishful thinking: ('Doom warnings sound more loudly', BBC Science/Nature News Online, January 10):

"For the doom merchants amongst us, 2004 showed its fearsome teeth in a cracking start before it was even 10 days old."

I think the reasons are pretty straightforward. As the Kyoto Protocol bites the dust, as a large swathe of good folk remain totally unswayed and unmoved by all the 'global warming' hype and rhetoric, as self-righteous Europe fails lamentably to attain its own Kyoto targets (with Denmark, Spain and Ireland so bad it is deeply embarrassing), and as even young Lomborg is reprieved, Green hysteria is becoming more histrionic and more fanciful by the day. I feel a sense of desperation in the air. Expect the volume to increase in every sense of the word! I have already ordered my ear plugs and dark specs!

Interestingly, this was predicted recently in a short article in Business Day ('Economic solution to scourge of malaria', December 10, 2003):

"The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate's 9th Conference of Parties has just ended in Milan [December 2003]. The multimillion-dollar conference did not achieve much, and the future of the Kyoto Protocol is in doubt and depends on Russia ratifying it.

To the glee of climate sceptics and horror of the Greens, Russia probably will not. This means that the many parties with vested interests in the protocol will stress every possible histrionic climate change scenario in order to boost the political will to ratify the protocol." [My emphasis].

So don't lose your Kirby grip, everyone! But I loved the anecdotal stuff about a man in a Birkenhead park! [And Liverpool won today!].

Unquestionably, however, it would be a better world if everyone was as courteous as Alex: "I know there are sincere people who regard both the global extinction rate and the changing climate as entirely natural developments which need not concern us."

This is such change, where people holding strongly opposing views can acknowledge the sincerity and the genuineness of each other, without resorting to ad personam abuse. It is a sign of strength, and I can think of many who should heed the example (cf. my January 9 blog). Fair dinkum, Alex.

Philip, understanding and respecting, but politely disagreeing with, Alex's wishful thinking.
Melanie Phillips in excoriating form .....

Melanie Phillips has long-held sensibly sceptical views about the modern construct of 'global warming'. But yesterday she was magnificent, responding magisterially, like a latter-day Boudicca, to the latest climate-change hype from Sir David King: 'The global warming scam' (January 9):

"The British government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has said that global warming is a more serious threat to the world than terrorism. His remarks are utter balderdash from start to finish and illustrate the truly lamentable decline of science into ideological propaganda."

"That's why this week's earlier eco-scare story, that more than a million species will become extinct as a result of global warming over the next 50 years, is risible. All that means is that someone has put into the computer the global warming scenario, and the computer has calculated what would happen on the basis of that premise. But -duh! -the premise is totally unproven. The real scientific evidence is that -- we just don't know; and the theories so far, linking man, carbon dioxide and climate warming. are specious. There's some seriously bad science going on in the environmentalist camp."

This is uncompromising, non-pusillanimous stuff, and she is correct - enough is enough! It really is time to expose the nonsense that is being pedalled in the name of 'global warming'.

Here is melaniephillips.com.

Philip, deeply impressed. Breakfast.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Lowering the tone of the GM debate.....

One of the more unpleasant groups involved in the GM debate in the UK is GM Watch (formerly NGIN), which too frequently resorts to ad personam diatribes against selected scientists and agriculturalists.

The following excellent article outlines some of the group's activities: 'Group targets UK GM scientists' (The Scientist, January 8):

"The GM Watch list, published in mid-December, won't change the substance of the GM debate, [Professor Emeritus Derek] Burke said, but will probably lower its tone. 'It makes the debate very unpleasant,' he said."

"GM Watch, [Professor Emeritus Peter Lachmann] said, typifies an antiscientific movement that fights advances despite their benefits and is also shown in recent accusations that the measles–mumps–rubella vaccine causes autism in children. 'There is a big movement away from the enlightenment that looks back towards a nonexistent, golden past,' he said. 'It's a bit of a tragedy. In the end, there are dead people and starving populations—though not in the developed world.'"

Yours truly has, on a number of occasions, been the object of quite risible (and sometimes misleading) comment. I took it as a Badge of Honour to be given their 'Pants on Fire' Award (do enjoy the little cartoon - my family loved it) - after all, I was in good company with Sir John Krebs, The Food Standards Agency, and The John Innes Centre! Thanks guys. The group's conspiratorial mindset just makes me laugh out loud. I'm glad I live on a different planet.

Undoubtedly, however, this is the nasty and more personal end of the GM debate. It is all so petty and sad.

By the way, with respect to the MMR debate mentioned in the above quote from Professor Lachmann, may I recommend this piece at the excellent Black Triangle blog: 'MMR and the Today Programme' (Black Triangle, January 7).

Philip, "Now were are those flaming pants?"

Thursday, January 08, 2004

On ‘Biodiversity’, or 'Are there still tigers in TriBeCa?'.....
With deep apologies to James Thurber

[Copyright©Philip Stott, 2004. This essay is adapted from a previous published version, and it may not be reproduced, either in full or in part, without the author's written permission.]

JAMES GROVER Thurber, quondam humorist of the quirky The New Yorker magazine, loathed neologisms. 'Automation' signified the end of civilization, as he knew it. It is therefore distinctly gratifying that he died in 1961, a good quarter-century before a group of earnest scientists in Washington DC coined the word 'biodiversity' for lots of animals and plants. And Thurber thought a great deal about beasts and verbiage, especially dogs, tigers, and the Stepmother's Kiss.

Since 1987, this 'biodiversity' has become as ubiquitous as alligators and crocodiles in the tranquil lakes and ponds of Central Park, although you still have to go to the Bronx Zoo for giraffes and elephants. 'Biodiversity' is breeding daily into a menagerie of the mind quite worthy of Thurber's own Professor Challenger-like protagonist, Dr. Wesley L. Millmoss. 'Biodiversity' inhabits every biologist's computer, migrating and dispersing unchecked from desk to desk, from lab to lab. It even infests the New York Times (although the New York Post has proved remarkably resistant), while in the UK it is positively rampant throughout The Guardian ('An Unnatural Disaster', The Guardian, January 8), in The Indy ('Revealed: how global warming will cause extinction of a million species', The Independent, January 8), and at the BBC ('Climate risk "to million species"', BBC Science/Nature News Online, January 7).

As Dr. Wilfred Ponsonby unkindly quipped in 1929 to a meeting of the American Scientific Society in Baltimore, "The old boy (Dr Millmoss) has never dug up half as many specimens as he has dreamed up." Today, we don't dream them up; we input them, and let them run in order for them to become extinct through 'global warming'.

Virtual Biodiversity

New Millennium 'biodiversity' is, of course, largely 'virtual', as we trek intrepidly around our microchips to discover inside our machines, through mathematical models and modems, unknown flora and fauna (or fauba, as Thurber once had it). Put in a 'tropical rain forest' and you'll notch up a million insects in the canopy at the click of a mouse (an also recently-evolved tabletop sub-species, some of which even inhabit houses). But these are only pixilated shadows, coleopterous and orthopterous statistics, totally beyond human hand or eye - not at all like Thurber's real friend, Gryllus domesticus, the Dickensian house cricket, which listened with its legs and thought humans walked on their ears.

In the 1920s, by sharp contrast, Dr. Millmoss used wire, papier mâché, and similar materials to create his models of the 'Middle Western Bestiary', which included, among many others, the marriage-breaking Mound Dweller of Ohio, the Illinois Thake, and the Spotted, or Ringed, Queech, a lithe pussycat probably left over from the great Plasticine Ice Age. Sadly, all of his models were destroyed by fire in 1930. Today, even more alarmingly, we are told that 40,000 species are going extinct every year, or a million in the next fifty years (take your gloomy pick), but only when you switch off your computer, or they are wiped out by nasty computer viruses (a truly splendid example of new 'biodiversity') bearing unlikely sounding names, such as 'Melissa' and, clearly a hybrid species, 'Bugbear'. 'Automation' really has become the end of the world. Homo sapiens nerdensis is alive and kicking butt.

Yet, all these virtual creepy crawlies and byting beasties 'die' daily without a name, scientific or otherwise. James Thurber would have been distraught; just think of his White-faced Rage next to a Blind Rage, and that unforgettable Hoodwink on a spray of Ragamuffin. As a child, I loved him. Life, and saving the Planet, is simply no fun anymore. There is nothing to make you laugh out raucously like Hackett's Gorm, one of the extinct animals of Bermuda, so perfectly encapsulated by Thurber as "a tailless extravertebrate about whom only one fact has survived the centuries: he was discovered by Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Hackett and their daughter Gloria." These days Gloria, or more likely Madison, would not be exploring Bermuda for lost gorms. She would be staring gormlessly at a flickering screen with lots of numbers and graphs, typing in oodles and oodles of data. "Now tell me, Madison, could you name some of the species that went extinct last year?" "No, I'm sorry, Madison, the NASDAQ doesn't quite count, even in Seattle. Please try again?"

Serious Animals

But enough of this 'biodiversity' banter: what of more serious and solid animals, like the tiger and the panda? Thurber was particularly good on the tiger, which lurks "in motor cars, crouches in sealed envelopes and prowls between the doorbell and the phone, ready to pounce on the dreamer day by day." I am sure, despite our media-driven world of ecogloomsters and ecodoomsters, that this tiger still pads around SoHo and TriBeCa at dusk and dawn amidst the cast iron and the limestone. In fact, I think I spotted, or striped, him (when last in New York) at Bubby's having brunch. You will also comfortingly find him, as Thurber so often reminded us, in gaiter, goiter, and aigret, not to mention in erting (a rare Scottish relative) and begirt. Clearly, every tiger is begirt by another tiger.

Interestingly, Thurber seems to have been much less sure about the giant panda, which he excluded from his 'A Gallery of Real Creatures'; and rightly so, because this true-life Winnie-the-Pooh in designer shades is clearly not a black-and-white issue. Nevertheless, 'biodiversity' has decreed that such bears/raccoons/or just plain ol' pandas (whatever they are!) must survive at all costs. Indeed, pandas are so emblematic that no zoo or Worldwide Fund for Whatever can make any money without one behind bars or on a badge. (I am distraught that Ms Naomi Klein hasn't found time to moan about this corporate branding yet.) Worse still, pandas are foolish enough to live in China. They are thus inexorably doomed, residing on the wrong side of the missile defence shield and the language being so difficult, quite out of character for pandas.

Accordingly, bushwhacked and bamboozled by their own food requirements, and with a total lack of interest in sex, pandas are hardly an advertiser's dream for the dynamics of 'Evolution and Adaptation'. T. H. Huxley would have soon persuaded Charles Darwin to drop the panda as a logo ('no-logo' Ms Klein again) - "Not good for business, old chap!" "Stick to foxes, rats and raccoons. Far less risky and a lot more frisky. Even old Lumbricus [the worm] is better," he would opine. Yet, in the name of the blooming "biodiversity" industry which besmirches newspapers throughout the world, we ship pandas around the globe in airplanes, try to give them artificial insemination, and even make them read 'Play Panda' at bedtimes.

Thus, at the serious risk of creating untoward pandamonium (a very pedantic sic must be inserted here) amongst the young folk visiting touchy-feely zoos (watch out for the E-coli!), why can't we let the panda go extinct with dignity? Animals surely have a right to become extinct? Circa 98.99999... per cent of all animals that have ever lived have done so. It is hardly a radical step; remember all those dinosaurs that thought they saw a bright new star shining in the East! And the benighted panda was on its way out well before we, Homo sapiens oeconomicus, evolved and took over the planet. 'Climate change' (now don't those words ring some 'biodiversity' bells this merry morning?) and biological inertia did for it eons ago. So give a mammal a chance. Honour its innate 'animalness', and let it die out unhindered by human hubris. There is nearly a case for species euthanasia. And, while we are on the subject, why aren't we quite so exercised about saving the pretty smallpox virus and that bacterium I picked up from eating 'natural' food the other day? These are also 'biodiversity', although you wouldn't guess it. Obviously they are the wrong sort of 'biodiversity', and distinctly 'non-U' - quite unlike our friendly, jaw-breaking, panda.

Just So Human

Our whole attitude to 'biodiversity' is just so human. Not very long ago a pelican had the temerity to eat a mallard duck in front of lots of small children at Regents Park in London. The distraught mothers immediately complained to the park attendant that the pelican shouldn't be allowed to do this when their tender offspring were around to witness the event, and most certainly not before the sex and violence TV watershed of 9 p.m. Poor pelican; the bird was simply doing what pelicans do. It is utterly matronising not to allow animals to be, well, animals. And, as children, we all learnt a great deal from rabbits and guinea pigs doing what comes naturally!

So what are we to do with this 'biodiversity', which James Thurber would have clearly hated, and which is the greatest invention since 'global warming' (and even better when combined) for creating ecoscares and ecochondria amongst the shoppers on 5th Avenue and New Bond Street? Personally, if I hear the word again, I'll reach for the pesticide.... But don't despair, 'biodiversity' is all around us, especially in Times Square and Trafalgar Square. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Sylvie and Bruno:

"He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus."

By the way, the climate warming at the end of the Younger Dryas, 11,640 years ago, probably included a 7 degree C rise in a decade. Just imagine the headlines!
*[For 'Further Reading', sit back with a good peaty whisky and enjoy James Thurber's masterpiece, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (first published in 1949), and forget that we are all about to be destroyed by an asteroid/global warming/new virus/biodiversity bombshell/nuclear meltdown/chemical cornucopia/tidal wave/rising and/or falling sea-level/GM plant/cloned sheep/......... - delete, or insert, as you feel appropriate.]
Philip, who hasn't a fog what will happen in ten years, never mind 50 or 100 years, but who is really enjoying all the biodiversity mayhem in this morning's news. "What larks, Pip!"

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

"There'll be new clouds over/The Black Cliffs of Dover....."

While the more puritanical wing of the Green lobby is bound to regard this as 'clouding' the issue (not enough hair shirts and scourges involved), 'Blue-sky thinking about climate' (BBC Science/Nature News Online, January 7), it is at least multivariate and more adaptive and inventive in its approach to climate change. The emphasis, however, remains on 'climate management', which I regard as largely impossible and totally unpredictable, rather than on economic and socio/political adaptation to climate change, whatever its ultimate direction(s). Nevertheless, this is leaps and bounds more interesting and fun than the moribund and irrelevant Kyoto Protocol!

Philip, sequestering behind his computer!
Further thoughts on 'Cold Mountain'.....

Since my blog (January 5) on the excellent film, 'Cold Mountain', a number of people have raised the issue of how the film addresses the subject of slavery.

I think Anthony Minghella gets this largely correct, because the story is dealing with small pioneer homesteaders, and not with the big Southern estate. It is about a Southern 'Little House' culture, not about Scarlett O'Hara's 'Tara'. I don't think that slavery was the big issue for these folks, more the 'idea' of the South, and the fact that they were not going to be dictated to by those damn Yankees. It would thus have been somewhat anachronistic, and perhaps over-PC, to have focused more on slaves and slavery. The film is essentially about the fate of the poorer independent farmsteader during the Civil War, and especially of the women who were left behind to fend for themselves. In that sense, a feminist theme, rather than a slavery theme, is the more appropriate.

Philip, enjoying a new career as film critic.
Well, well! Wonders will never cease.....

Granted it is in true Guardian style, but the 'Environment' page finally sort-of apologises to our doughty Viking warrior, Dr. Bjorn Lomborg: 'EcoSounding' (The Guardian, Society Supplement, Environment, January 7):-

"Belated congratulations to Bjorn Lomborg, eminent recipient of an EcoSounding award for contrarian of the year. Just before Christmas, the author of the Sceptical Environmentalist, who last year had been found guilty of 'scientific dishonesty' by a panel of Danish scientists, was cleared of the charge by a committee of Danish government scientists."

Well done lads. Late, but nevertheless welcome. Let's hope you become 'bjorn-again' sceptics like good ol' me.

But what of The Washington Post, a point just made at Easterblogg (January 6):

"The New York Times, which also lent prominence to the accusation against Lomborg, gave prompt and fair coverage to the withdrawal of the accusation. Science magazine, the world's leading technical journal, reported Lomborg's vindication. Now how about you, Washington Post - only accusations count as news? We throw mud but we don't wash it off?"

Philip, 'the keeper of the bull in the village' = Viking 'Stott'.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

India leads the GM way (so much for EU dithering).....

Well done, India. Following on from the highly-positive Nuffield Bioethics Report (see Blog for January 2), we now have 'India unveils six-year GM plan' (BBC Science/Nature News Online, January 5):

"... the Indian Government believes GM is necessary if its burgeoning population is to be fed; and like other developing countries including China, is prepared to invest in research it considers essential."

"The plan also involves developing crops resistant to environmental stresses, particularly drought and salinity."

We are wet in the UK, aren't we? Makes one embarrassed!

Philip, all for the developing world, and not for European post-industrial angst. Lunch!
Lucky you.....

A gem from my old pal, Professor John Adams of UCL (the best - and UCL even produced Coldplay!): 'In defence of bad luck' (Sp!ked, December 22):

"This approach to risk management has little to do with increasing safety, and a lot to do with backside protection." I aaask you!

And just to remind you that the next 'Home Planet' is on BBC Radio 4 today. If you are in the UK, it is broadcast every Tuesday afternoon at 15.02 GMT on BBC Radio 4; if you are outside the UK, you may still listen to it, online, via the BBC 'Home Planet' Web Page: (a) on the day in question, choose the 'Listen Live' button; or, (b) for one week after the first broadcast, choose the 'Listen Again' button; or, (c) after one whole week, select the relevant date under 'Previous Programmes'. And today's topics? Black poplars, pubs and glass recycling, the Haskins Report, and Russian oil (we are ever eclectic!). Slick answers all round. Enjoy.

Now for a visit from our first grandson. Philip, with new responsibilities!

Monday, January 05, 2004

Magic, music, and mildew on 'Cold Mountain'.....

I did enjoy the new Anthony Minghella/Miramax film, 'Cold Mountain', seen yesterday evening. It is a minor masterpiece. The horrors of civil war are engraved on the mind as powerfully as in a Goya print; the two central romantic roles, Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law), are played in classic Hollywood style; and, if Renée Zellweger (Ruby) doesn't receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, then there ain't no justice in them thar hills. She is superb. Of course, Ms Kidman and Mr. Law are too beautiful by half, and have much too perfect a set of gnashers for the 1860s, but one should not let these silver-screen conceits distract from the fact that both are serious actors who turn in performances of translucent quality.

The film has many magical moments. The landcapes are as beguiling as any Southern beauty, from the crab-teeming coastal swamps to the emerald green/snow grey ridges and valleys of Cold Mountain itself. The first kiss is in the great Hollywood tradition (so much more powerful than sex!). And there are some subtle intertextualities too, like the vision of Ms Kidman, as a Southern belle, with her hands in the dirt, recalling that most famous of all Southern belles, Vivian Leigh, when Scarlett O'Hara holds up the sacred earth of Tara, while Inman's epic American journey (it is, of course, also Homer's 'The Odyssey') across swamp, wide river, and jagged ridge takes on a distinctly Huckleberry Finn-Mark Twain character.

Particularly striking, however, is the episode showing the vigorous sacred singing of the period in the simple, pure white, wooden, pioneer church. This is spine-tingling in its authenticity, and it is based on a tradition that was born in Colonial New England and then transferred to the rural South of Ada and Inman. The congregation sing praises from what is called the 'Sacred Harp' hymnal, keeping time to the rousing a cappella tune by slicing the air rythmically with their rigid right hands. It is immensely moving to watch. The specific hymn is "I'm Going Home", and, though joyful in itself, in the context of the film, it carries a heavy poignancy as the young men leave enthusiastically for "their war" - "I'm glad that I am born to die/From grief and woe my soul shall fly/And I don't care to stay here long."

According to an outstanding article on this scene in The Chicago Tribune, "'Cold Mountain' shows off sacred singing" (The Chicago Tribune, January 4), Ms Kidman and Mr. Law were specifically taught how to sing 'Sacred Harp' music by Tim Eriksen, a specialist on the subject. By 1850, there were apparently hundreds of such songbooks for remote, rural congregations, relying on what were called 'shape-notes' (triangles, circles, squares and diamonds). The 'Sacred Harp' hymnal itself contains over 500 three- and four-part fugues, hymns and marches.

So this is a film of magic and music that you must see. But why comment on it on EnviroSpin? First, because I think the film tells us much about the psychological history of America, and we Europeans desperately need to learn more about this, and to respect it. But secondly, there is, surprisingly, one terrible flaw, right at the end. How could the cutting room have missed it? The final rising shot from the family table, where Ada and Ruby, now with their children, are celebrating their hard-won lives, lingers long on an oak tree - a dreadfully mildewed oak, with white-powdered, curling, ruined leaves - it looks like it has been taken straight out of a diseased Mordor! I winced - perhaps Ada's and Ruby's lives will be forever blighted after all? A botanical blip of the first order!

But do not miss this masterpiece. The magic and music outweigh the mildew manyfold.

Philip, wiping the tears and the popcorn from his cheeks.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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