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.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

We still need witches to burn, hang and drown.....

The human capacity for self-delusion is surely only matched by a deep desire for self- and 'other'-flagellation - "Mea culpa! We're all doomed!" The extraordinary attempts to implicate human sinfulness in the cause of the Indian Ocean tsunami, not to mention the recent storms in Europe, know no bounds - they range from sinful drunken policemen in Indonesia via a wrathful God and a Satanic Dubya to big oil! It all goes to show, yet again, that Bruno Latour was right: "We have never been modern". It is not sufficient to acknowledge the simple and down-to-earth truth that we live on an intrinsically restless physical planet, both atmospherically and geologically. We still need witches to burn, hang and drown.

In particular, I have rarely heard such rubbish as that being dumped to try to link current weather in Europe to the tsunami and the tsunami to current weather in Europe. One respected radio programme seemed quite put out when I said calmly that there was no link whatsoever between the tsunami and the recent floods in Cumbria, north-west England! That was the last thing they wanted to hear. They needed witches weaving spells.

I wonder what all these heretic hunters would have made of the dreadful year, 1589? The final decades of the 16th century - right at the heart of the 'Little Ice Age' - were a climatic horror story in Europe, with mighty storms sinking ships (including a goodly portion of the Spanish Armada in 1588) in the Atlantic and on the North Sea. 1589 was particularly of note because of the rather dramatic attempts to bring King James VI's bride, Anne of Denmark, over to Scotland. These were thwarted over and over again by absolutely treacherous weather. You can just see the headlines in The Gloomiad (Scottish Edition, September 3, 1589): "Anne's royal tryst thwarted by Global Cooling", report by Peter the Green and John-a-Vitals. Admiral Munk, who had been given the rather dubious honour of bringing the new Scottish Queen safe to shore, was not a happy mariner, and he roundly observed to any who would listen that he had never known such storms in all his long life (he must have many descendants working in the media).

Confined one day to his storm-tossed cabin, he at last divined the answer - of course, not knowing of CO2 and oil and Dubya, it was the work of witches, and he recalled with tremulations that he had cuffed a certain Copenhagen citizen, the wife of whom (unfortunately) was a notorious witch. She was clearly a pretty powerful witch to boot, because, after his third attempt to steer the good ship Gideon to Scotland, he was forced to land the Queen in rough old Norway. It is rumoured that the poor 14-year old Queen was ever so pleased to see dry land again, even if it was a frozen fjord and not a warm royal bed - unsurprising really, as she had been nearly drowned and crushed to death. The bitter (and frustrated) King likewise implicated witchcraft - it was the tenor of the times.

So remember folks - America, and big business, and oil, and CO2, and patio heaters, and you and me are little more than the latest big bad witches - it's just that they are dressed up in a bit of modern flummery, that's all. Computer models are but the new cauldrons writ large. Don't be bewitched and befuddled. Still, watch out for the witch hunts: witch-finder generals abound, and The Lord Blair is sending them far and wide to scour the land.

Rationality is facing its next great crucible; the ever-righteous finger will point at me, and at you. The baying crowd will cry for hangings, and the media will fuel the flames. Expect it to get much worse before sense returns to a saner land.

Philip, fascinated by how human nature never changes.

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

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