Archive for January, 2010

Žižek, “See you in hell or in communism!”

January 31, 2010 9 comments

Slavoj Žižek appeared on the BBC’s Culture Show a few days ago. I’d been meaning to write it up and am only now getting around to it. His performance is dazzling, as per usual, and we socialists do like our in-jokes, but I thought that this time, rather than just show the video, I might pick up on a point or two of what he says, and how it relates to his wider oeuvre and his practice of what he preaches.

In the interview, Žižek maintains that the purest form of ideology is in cinema, that it is ‘more real than our everyday reality’. It is with this in mind that most of Žižek’s written works must be read – and to this is then applied the unique blend of Žižek’s systems of analysis: Marxist, Lacanian psychoanalysis and so on. I can see how certain ideologies can be evinced through certain movies. Žižek uses blockbuster ‘2012’ as one of several examples he gives.

One message from the film suggests that ‘in order for one stupid American family to come together,’ most of the world’s population must be wiped out – that solidarity under current conditions is impossible, that even imagining is pointless, for the individual as much as for Hollywood.

There is a logic here; it is a motif repeated in almost every Hollywood disaster movie – the disaster wreaks a personal effect, which is almost universally good, presented as the exposure of the people underneath the day to day existence. Except that who we are day to day is who we are; the normal processes of the system are what the system is.

What Žižek is suggesting, and where I agree with him, is that in this repeated motif, we can see a function of ideology. It is the argument that we should disregard banality, disregard our day to day drudgery, because who we are, and who other people are, underneath sets us apart from all that. The moral of the story is a sedative.

Thus the constellations of message produced by Hollywood takes on the role of one more arm of the hegemonic ideology. Here is an opportune space to query Žižek’s epistemological assumptions. Žižek does not believe in an objective reality; what decides between competing interpretations is the “master-signifier”, a resistance to the infinite regression of over-intellectualized reason, “It is so because I say it is so!”

The concept of hegemony is based on the idea that one can know the real processes at work through the system of socio-economic organization we call capitalism. Having gained further knowledge of cinema and this particular movie, we can then suggest how its message might relate to this broader process that we’ve observed, i.e. the attempt to normalize as common sense everything that upholds values conducive to the smooth running of that system.

We can argue over the meaning of ‘2012’, much like people argued over the meaning of Avatar. Yet we do so within the universe of the things actually contained within the film. Moreover we do so in the context of pre-existing ideology, the common sense factor, and mechanisms of dissemination controlled by the gate-keepers of the common sense factor (the press), all of which will have an effect on interpretation.

So the reality of the processes of capitalism have an effect in determining the interpretation. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not limitless. It is not merely raw material to be warred over by competing factions wishing to hegemonize it and utilize its popular appeal for their own ends, much in the way that some Left groups tend to approach nationalism or ethnic identities.

It will contain the same contradictions as the ideology (or some part thereof) of the system which created it. We resolve those contradictions using the fundamental analytical categories provided by Marxism. It’s only when looked at in this way can we avoid what seem like wanton extrapolations from a film, however tightly packed it might be with ideology, however closely it may be linked to how capitalism thinks about itself, to the whole world or a whole ideology, or a whole socio-economic system of organizing.

In the interview, Žižek continues, “If you want to approach how beliefs function today, I claim, the best example I can imagine is that stupid cartoon which I’ve seen five, six times, because of my small son, Kung-Fu Panda.” Žižek goes on to link in the Marx brothers and how these explain the appeal of Silvio Berlusconi:

“This guy looks as an idiot, acts as an idiot, but this shouldn’t deceive you, this guy is an idiot”. Berlusconi is wealthy, his corruption is the subject of much debate, much like his links to the fascists and his many affairs with beautiful women and his changing of the law to suit his private interests. People, it seems, simply don’t believe that one can act like such a moron and yet be a moron.

This type of analogy seems different the previous one, more straightforward, assuming that what we can see in day to day life is real, and that we may look for reflections and distortions of the ‘real’ in cinema.

Whereas in the previous example, Žižek was taking a specific film and generalizing to the form in which capitalist hegemony attempts to oppress people, in this one it is mere metaphor for what we can see with our own eyes. An opportune film demonstrates a phenomenon we’ve all wondered about over George W. Bush and Berlusconi.

Simply put, how can people continually elect a moron? Žižek calls this the ‘double-cynical wager’, that if someone acts like what they are, then people will expect them not to be that. The explanation of this surface-phenomenon might be complex, but we’re still working within the confines of empirical data.

When attempting to explain such phenomenon, using cinema as a means to extrapolate meaning, whether by analogy or some other process, is as valid as reaching for any of the other items in our shared cultural universe. Cinema is as common a language as any, and there’s the added value that it’s entertaining – though even here, I think, we locate a flaw in our esteemed theorist.

He suggests that the current situation demands that we wake people up to the ideology that they live and breathe as part of their daily routine. Yet there are very few people who are going to read the tracts of any of the current shower of academics – Marxist, liberal, libertarian, whatever. Presumably it is through this entertainment, which include several visual endeavours and lecturing at a rubbish tip, that we might wake people up.

I think this loses sight of the need to approach people where they are, in languages with which they are familiar.

Žižek also suggests that if he were taken seriously, it would mean that he is ‘integrated’ into the cosseted, cultural buffer against revolutionism that universities so often form. While this is probably true, and Zizek’s antics make him stick out like a sore thumb, being taken seriously and being integrated need not mean the same thing. It really depends on who Žižek wants to take him seriously.

If it’s fellow academics, then being taken seriously and being integrated often are the same thing. One need only compare the lives of academic socialists such as Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. However, if Žižek wishes to be taken seriously by the people he wishes to carry out the revolution (however he wishes to define them, assuming they’re not an intellectual elite), then he needs to get his hands dirty at public meetings and on the doorsteps as well as writing such stylish prose.

That will prevent his integration to the Academy.

What exactly is Conservative economic policy?

January 31, 2010 9 comments

I’m simply not clear on Conservative economic policy in relation to government debt.

Why is Cameron saying one day to business leaders  that there is no need for big cuts in the first year of a Conservative government, while on the very same day one of his top MPs is going on about the ‘need to get to grips with public finances now’?

Why is there a commitment to an emergency budget if there are aren’t going to be any significant cuts?  Would such a budget simply be about reducing corporation tax and therefore increasing the deficit?

Well, there is a track record for such economic stupidity by the Tories. 

Under Thatcher, cyclical borrowing costs caused by the Tory response to recession – itself largely driven by fear of how the markets might respond – continued to ensure that the structural budget deficit continued at more or less the same level for a further four years beyond the actual recession (see the graphs at page 7 of this IFS report).

And the Tories are trying to instill economic confidence with international investors?  Gawd help us.

Cameron’s Brazilian moment

January 31, 2010 1 comment

This description of the arrogant style of Cameron and Osborne, by someone who has either seen it himself or had it recounted to him by Tory insiders, is interesting:

When David Cameron and George Osborne move between their suite of offices at the eastern end of the parliamentary estate and the Commons chamber they do so with a pomp that would not embarrass a medieval monarch. A crowd of attendants accompanies them, constantly changing positions but never disrupting the order: staffer, Cameron, staffer, Osborne, staffer. The party moves through the corridors at breakneck speed, heads thrown back, staring into the middle distance rather than looking around at their colleagues.

If that’s what Tory insiders get, then the rest of us need to be pretty worried. 

It puts me in mind of this short scene (about 5mins 20 secs in) from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  Tory dystopia, indeed.

Categories: Terrible Tories

Semi-exclusive: Man who ran credit rating agency says Tories wrong about credit rating agencies

January 31, 2010 2 comments

Here’s a Tory MP on the radio the other day (about 1hr 8 mins in). He’s on autopilot about the need to make quick cuts:

International investors are worried about the credit rating of the UK  and we need to be extremely careful with that. The real risk is if we don’t do something about the public finances.  Our credit rating may be at risk……….  It is going to be a huge job to try to address the big structural deficit we have  and we cannot afford to wait until after the election and then say “and now we’ll start thinking about it”.

Then, in response, here’s a man who actually ran the sovereign debt bit of a credit rating agency:

You’re being far too complacent about it.  I used to actually run part of a credit rating agency that looked at government risk, and one thing that would really worry rating agencies was if growth was stalled, and then you didn’t get the growth in tax revenues  which you normally expect in an upturn,  and you being to get benefit claims rising because unemployment was not coming down.

I do hope the said credit ratings agency man, now a senior LibDem MP, gets a say in who the LibDems form any coalition government with.

Effective local blogging (3): creating the interface between Habermasian ‘lifeworld’ and anti-hegemonic narrative

January 30, 2010 21 comments

I am too serious a socialist thinker to waste time reading the right wing blogosphere.  I have, however, been made aware that my previous post on the development of the leftwing blogopshere did meet with some criticism from that benighted quarter.

I have of course no doubt that all those reading my article did so fair-mindedly and completely, and so have therefore been at something of a loss to work out how such criticism might have come about; my argument was, as ever, coherent, well made and impeccably sourced, so there can have been no issues to pick at in terms of the consequent recommendations for solidaristic action.

 However, on reflection, I concede that the post may not perhaps – especially for a relatively uncultured and epistemologically naïve audience – have given sufficient specific guidance on what might be the precise content of the emerging leftwing local and regional media, itself set within its wider ‘web’ of local and then wider actions.

Here, therefore, I seek to provide such further guidance. This is apposite enough, since in the initial stages of this leftwing media development programme there will inevitably need to be some centralized guidance on what kind of content can or cannot be authorized in the developing local publications; there is little doubt that a central committee will need to be established to co-ordinate the programme and provide editorial control over all local ‘blogs’ and their allied multi-media developments (and needless to say, it is likely that I would need to play – however reluctantly – a key role in this committee, possibly as its founding General Secretary).

Fundamentally, the remit of any new localized ‘cell-based’ but centrally co-ordinated publication, whether electronic or hard copy, will be the creation of an effective interface between the existing ‘lifeworld’ and the development of an appropriate register of anti-hegemonic discourse. 

By ‘lifeworld’, I refer to the post-Husserl Habermasian conception (‘Lebenswelt’) of a set of socially and culturally sedimented linguistic meanings, shared in their current form by the working class and its hegemonized identities (and sets of identities). 

Into this existing set of shared understandings of how the world operates, it is necessary to ‘infuse’ the appropriate set of Marxian conceptions both around the essential nature of capital/labour relations and the consciousness of the working class as an objective entity in relation to capital.  In turn such conscientization will lead to the development of a renewed ‘Lebenswelt’ in which class struggle becomes both  more desirably and feasible through solidaristic local and then wider action.

Perhaps a concrete example of this process may assist our more epsitemologically challenged readership.  

Clearly, in today’s shared ‘lifeworld’ the proletatiat has been subjugated through the realisation of a mass media enculturation project (cf the Lacanian concept of ‘jouissance’, if you will) based on glamourised notions of romance. 

To grasp this is a useful starting point for all the centrally driven local publications aimed at, in the medium term, creating a renewed revolutionary spirit within the working class.  Each new publication should therefore contain at least one ‘romance’ story, written in the appropriate register (cf. the ‘Mills and Boon’ phenonemon, and the rise of Heat Magazine), but with elements of Marxian teaching and concientization woven into the fabric of the story, along with other elements (in the shape of minor character and secondary plot devices) aimed at challenging some of the more reactionary theoretical and practical digressions offered up by the so-called ‘post-Marxist’ left. 

Plot lines for these ‘romances’, and accompanying sample of dialogue, for submission to the putative Central Revolutionary Activist Publishing (CRAP) committee will therefore be along the following lines.

First, all such publications will have three central ‘romantic’ characters in a triangular love/Marxist doctrine triangle.  Though some variation may be authorised in time, initially one character, whom in the first editions should generally be called Malcolm, will both be something of an overly orthodox ‘reductionist’ Marxist (cf. Althusser), and believe himself to be ‘in love’ with Barbara, a headstrong and occasionally incomprehensible ‘post-Marxist’ firebrand with a mysterious background in psychoanalytical dabblings and a penchant for referring to The Big Other, sometimes in French.   

After some twists and turns of appropriate local invention, but usually involving plans for a strike, heavy handed tactics by state agents, and some telling revelations about the intellectual relationship between Zizek and Lacan, Malcolm should be betrayed by the ultimately unreliable Barbara, only to be rescued from a fate worse than Compass-based liberalism by the strong, steady presence of Ethel, whose character should be developed subtly from the first strike meeting onwards and slowly revealed not just as brilliant in the sack (as is Malcolm, after an unsure start) but also to have a mature intellectual grasp of both the basic immutable tenets of historical materialism and of the capacity to adapt tactics to this particular historic bloc, in addition to a ready grip the use of discourse as a subtle but powerful counter-hegemonic device. 

In this way, all such ‘romances’ will have an in-built structure reflecting the essential dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis played out by and through the central characters.  The following sample dialogue also pertains.

It was then the realization hit Malcolm, as fiercely as that recent blow on the back of the head from an agent of the state, in which he now fully understood that violence was always and irredeemably inherent.   

Yes, yes, he thought. Ethel was the one. Ethel was the one who really understood the dynamic relationship between the ideological superstructure and the essential economic base, and how surplus value was really at the heart both of the so-called postwar economic miracle (as Jessopian ‘spatio-temporal fix’ in the principal form of the welfare state) and now more so much more clearly in ‘raw power’ form in this latest crisis of capitalism. 

‘Oooh, Ethel’, he swooned, as she folded him in her womanly arms, strengthened by years of proletariat toil, and held him against her beating heart of socialist endeavour.

‘Ethel, tell me again about the relationship between Rosa Luxembourg’s incisive vision of how the working classes can come together in revolutionary force, and the somewhat later but, you suggest, no less relevant, writing of Gramsci on intellectual and moral reform within a temporal nation-state context. 

‘Take your overalls off, comrade’ whispered Ethel, huskily, Poulantzian in her growing desire for unity between socialists.  ‘I need to feel your Lukacs compendium’. 

Malcolm moved closer, and as the sun dipped behind the horizon, far to the well metaphorical left, Ethel gasped: ‘Now that’s what I call entryism by the Hard Left, comrade’.

I hope this helps. All romances should introduce light Shakespearian comedic relief about two thirds of the way through.  Unless otherwise authorized, this should be in the form of two well-meaning but bumbling professor figures, whom you should usually calls Professors Louffe and Maclau ,who will tend to mix up neo-liberal and pseudo-radical concepts a lot, and will  often be ejected from strike scenes by the workers, and this often by the seat of their pants.   

In later US-set versions of the Central Committee’s work, the professors should generally be thrown out of a saloon-bar style doorway into a muddy unpaved street, while in the more socially realist British tradition they should generally end up in one of those big refuse collection bins the Conservative Council hasn’t collected for ages. 

At least one professor should emerge, crestfallen with a leaking Kentucky Fried Chicken box on her/his head but flattened down into an approximate mortar board shape, to create symbolic image of her/his intellectual immersion in the detritus of capitalism, and what mortar boards are used for in the socialism-building trade. 

There will be one other important character in all of the romances.  This will almost invariably be a wise, avuncular figure, generally a rural Labour councillor known for his occasional but hugely insightful blogging.  This character will pop up frequently to gives sage advice on the need for a focus on praxis even in the heat of events, and will generally be able to distil his interpretation of recent events in the novel, both in terms of intellectual development and strike practicalities, into less than 5,000 words, though he should be allowed longer if it casts him in a particularly noble and heroic light. 

In the subsequent film versions, this character should generally be played by left-leaning Hollywood A-Listers George Clooney and, when he gets too old, Johnny Depp.  On no account should Sean Penn be involved, because he is silly.

Categories: Uncategorized

What are students for again?

January 28, 2010 20 comments

Recently Giles at Freethinking Economist had an interesting post about the need to ‘free the market’ for universities and allow the introduction of variable tuition fees.  As ever with Giles’ posts, despite his utter liberal numptiness his argument is well-made and sourced, and  he also links to two documents produced by Julian Astle for his liberal think-tank ‘Centre Forum’: a paper from November 2008 arguing the case for the LibDems dropping their opposition to tuition fees, and one from 2006 arguing a wider case for a fee-based system in the context of greatly increased numbers of students. 

I’ve now had time to read both papers.  I can’t pretend to do them full justice here, other than to note that they are excellently written and well researched; the 2006 paper even gives a very helpful account of the recent history of the stage-by-stage move from a grant system to a loan system, the details of which I’ll happily admit I really hadn’t understood properly until recently.

In essence, though, the papers argue that tuition fees are justified because a) there is no evidence that they drive away students from poorer backgrounds b) some of the proposals/systems for ensuring access to university actually end up favouring students from wealthier backgrounds and are, effectively, regressive. 

Instead of pouring money into this part of the system in an effort to fix what doesn’t need fixing, Julian argues, we’d be much better pumping the same money into the bit of the overall system which DOES need fixing: the  inequities and injustices in early years education which lead to young people from poorer backgrounds not getting enough qualification at school in order then to go to university.

The case is well-argued, and I really do recommend reading the papers in full.

But I still have a problem.  Well two problems.  The argument is well made, and I absolutely agree that early years education is what matters most of all, but the argument still rests on two implicit assumptions about university education.

The first assumption is that students should pay for their own education at tertiary level, and that there should and can be be no return to the pre-1990 system of a) no individual fees b) means tested maintenance grants rather than repayable loans (under whatever terms).  While this assumption is implicit in Julian’s paper, Giles makes it explicit in his post:

It makes sense to subsidize it a little,  because good educations yield great externalities for all of us.  But most of the benefit is privately enjoyed, and in a time of fiscal strain it makes sense to charge more for it, rather than tax the less educated.

While this is indeed a commonly held assumption, I’m afraid I don’t buy it. 

Why is university education for a certain percentage of the population deemed to be a private benefit, and therefore chargeable to the individual, while provision of health care to a certain percentage of the population deemed to have enough externalities to make it worth funding through general taxation?

 Indeed, if taken in purely utilitarian terms, it could be argued that the health service has much lower externalities than university education, because most people receive by far their biggest input from the health services when they’re too old to be economically, and perhaps even socially, productive, so that by far biggest share of health is ‘privately enjoyed’. 

I don’t think Giles would argue for the total privatisation of health care, but that is what his logic implies.  While he argues (in the comments) with this logic, saying that we don’t expect food to be totally socialized because it also has externalities, the point is that as a modern welfare state  we do in fact recognise and cater for the externalities of  decent nutrition for all citizens, directly though the Free School Meals programme, for example, and indirectly through benefit payments.  We do this because there is an external benefit to society, over and above the food eaten by individuals, in living in a civilised society where you don’t generally see people starving in the street.

Even  without comparisons, the argument that higher education benefits are ‘privately enjoyed’ simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  Everyone benefits from the fact that people go to university.  As an extreme example, it would be ridiculous to argue that Richard Branson does not benefit from university educations, simply because he didn’t go to university himself.  He benefits directly from the expertise his thousands of university-educated workers provide him ,from his pilots to his lawyers to his media creatives to his accountants.   But it’s not just Richard Branson and his ilk.  I, and everyone around me, benefits from the fact that people who have learned how to do stuff really well, whether it’s build bridge that don’t fall down or write books we like, provide those services to a wider public.  These are all obvious externalities.

Why then, if we are content as part of the post-war welfare statement settlement, to socialize some costs either wholly or partly, on the basis that we all benefit one way or another, are we suddenly so reluctant even to consider a (re)socialization of university costs?

Well, the most obvious reason is that there is now a well-established mindset about taxation which simply puts beyond the pale any concept of paying for people to go for university out of general taxation, and of using progressive taxation to ensure that the rich pay most for universities to do their thing, because they get the most externalized benefit from it whether or not they have been to university themselves (Richard Branson uses lots of lawyers trained at university at no cost to him, while I do not).

Of itself, this makes little sense both for the reasons of externality comparison I set out above, but also because graduate repayments are, as Julian Astle points out in his 2006 paper, pretty well like income tax anyway, though clearly at too flat a rate.  To a great extent, all we’re doing with tuition fee loans and maintenance loans is, at great administrative expense, bolting on a poorly worked out income tax to another slightly less poorly worked out income tax, simply in order to avoid call it an income tax.

The ”repayments’ into the system you’d get from a general taxation system would in fact be repayable over much the same 25 year period as tuition fees are currently paid by roughly the same people (because higher income generally follows from higher education levels), and the possibility of default is built into the student loan system anyway.

But behind this political unwillingness to countenance general taxation as the key student funding route (the bulk of funding for costs not directly tied to students come from general taxation anyway) lies, I contend, something of much greater concern.

 This is quite simply that the idea of general taxation to fund students is out of keeping with the ideological construct of what it is to be a student – a construct developed in the 1980s under Thatcher but now so deeply embedded in UK society that it is no longer remarked upon as being a key historical development.

This notion of the ideological construction of what it is to be a student links us back to Julian Astle’s second key assumption in his impressive paper  This is that getting more young people from poorer backgrounds into university is THE key task, one which he argues cogently enough not hampered by tuition fees but rather by prior educational opportunity and attainment.

As I’ve said above, that’s fair enough, and I’m all for providing those earlier opportunities.  But for me, getting working class people into university is not THE only issue; the second issue is what they do, and how they identify themselves as students, as and when they get there.

The real hegemonic  brilliance of a move towards individual tuition and maintenance loans during the 1980s was, I contend, that it furthered a process already underway of making students into units of potential economic activity and production.  In so doing, it moved us all, including students, away from an appreciation – either implicit or explicit.  that to be both working class AND part of a ‘student body’ (is that term used at all now) was to be part of the great post-war settlement wrung from capital . In less politicised terms, students came to be seen, and see themselves, not as entitled to an expanding supply of tertiary education whatever their later intentions (or lack of them), but as simply a debtor to society who had to pay back into the system as soon as possible.

And this is where we are today.  Universities themselves are marked in part according to the percentage of people thy feed into the employment.  Students are expected to comply with educational system, as passive learners using ‘learning resource centres’ rather than active students using libraries to investigate the world for themselves and then to challenge it if they see fit.

In a recent post Dave quotes 1968 student radical Daniel Cohen-Bendit:

The student, at least, in the modern system of higher education, still preserves a considerable degree of personal freedom, if he chooses to exercise it. He does not have to earn his own living, his studies do not occupy all his time and he has no foreman at his back. He rarely has a wife and children to feed. He can, if he so chooses, take extreme political positions without any personal danger…the ensuing struggle is especially threatening to the authorities as the student population keeps going up by leaps and bounds.

While Dave quotes Cohn-Bendit disapprovingly in the light of his more recent political failings, this sense of what studentship of this post-war settlement ilk might be about is still worth holding on to.  Being part of a student body SHOULD be about scaring the fuck out of the system with challenging thoughts and actions; it should be about experimentation, whether in philosophy or engineering or even social entrepreneurship.  Such an aspiration shouldn’t even be just a particularly leftwing position.

What we have at the moment, though, as reflected in the tuition fees non-debate, is the tertiary education equivalent of the ‘careers advice’ now being provided to thousands of primary school children – a system where we train young people not to be anything other than their parents.

While this is not all about fees and loans, I would argue that freeing young people from any expectation that they must conform enough to pay back their dues must be an important step in freeing them more generally to, quite literally, ‘think for themelves’.  It is then for the wider left to be in a position, exactly as the French Left WASN’T in a position in the late 1960s for the reasons Dave sets out in his must-read posts, to seek to both influence, and be influenced by any new radicalism – whether philosophical or tactical – that emerges.  The British (and European left) should seek to see its student bodies not as encumbrances, or as cannon fodder, but (perhaps as the Iranian people now see its students) as a great hope worth fostering and supporting.

So, yes, I accept that in one sense Giles and Julian may be talking common sense about tuition fees and the fact that they may enhance widening participation in university education, or at the very least not hinder it (though I note that since I thought about this piece Left Foot Forward has taken a different view on this from Giles in his understandably self-congratulatory post).  In the paradigm of ‘economically useful’ students, they may be talking common sense.  

The challenge for the left, in what I hope will be a continued campaign for the abolition of all fees and loans in favour of free access and payments through general taxation, will be uncommon sense about what students are really for.

Categories: General Politics

Andrew Neil, Melanie Phillips and ClimateGate: it cuts both ways

January 28, 2010 4 comments

On the same day that Andrew Neil was joining Melanie Phillips at the vanguard of the AGW scepticism-for-rightwing-journalistic-career-enhancement lobby, I read a much more interesting article at the website of the excellent Institute of Science in Society. 

In his post, Andrew Neil is content enough to play to the crowd.  His basic argument is that the IPCC has made some claims in its literature which have not been properly peer-reviewed, and that this therefore proves that ‘the science as promulgated by the IPCC is very far from “settled” and that there are important questions still to ask.’   

Strange logic. 

To be rigorously fair to Neil, he doesn’t go as far as saying that AGW theory is total bunk.  Indeed he is careful to note that the ‘politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs and green activists’ that he suggests make up the IPCC may or may not be right’.  No loaded terms there at all!  But Neil is a journalist.  He knows his readership, and the torrent of denier comments that accompany his post fully in keeping with his figurative headline ‘The dam is breaking’. 

Compare this now to the studied calm of the I-SIS article by Dr Mae-Wan Ho and Professor Peter Saunders.  They end by concluding their support for AGW theory, but they are also quite clear that scepticism about AGW can be a healthy part of climate change research: 

Scepticism is healthy, especially when the political stakes are high in something like climate change; but it must be accompanied by a passionate commitment to the coherent whole. Contrary to the claims of Taylor and other climate sceptics, scepticism has stimulated good research on cloud formation, for example, which has long been identified as a major area of uncertainty by top climate scientists. 

But the most interesting part of the article points us towards evidence that at least some in the ‘sceptic community’ may not be  interested in such ‘passionate commitment to the coherent whole’; while there may be some perfectly justified criticism of the IPCC for the way it has set out its case based on some unsubstantiated claims, that doesn’t excuse the sceptic community from committing what, at face value, appears to be a  a much greater scientific sin: providing false and misleading data

Here’s where we enter Melanie Phillips territory. 

Here she is, in 2006, extolling the research of Henrik Svensmark, (Director of the Centre for Sun-Climate Research, Danish National Space Center) on ‘cosmic rays ‘ which ‘are known to boost cloud formation – and, in turn, reduce temperatures on Earth’. 

This work, she says: 

could well open a can of wormholes in climate-change science’ because it provides proof ‘that temperature fluctuations over the past 550 million years are more likely to relate to cosmic-ray activity than to CO2. 

Except for the small inconvenience that the ‘apparent strong correlations….have been obtained by an incorrect handling of the physical data’. 

That’s according to a 2003 paper by Peter Laut of the Technical University of Denmark. The paper is horribly complex, but the allegations include the fact that a key graph, in which Svensmark (and previous researchers on whose work he relies) seek to show correlation between the intensity of galactic cosmic rays and strength of cloud cover (leading to lower temperatures), were in fact  

extended artificially by combining into one curve into two incongruous data sets ie. two data sets representing entirely different physical qualities. 

This particular graph, says Peter Laut  

has played an important role in the scientific debate as well as in discussions conducted in the general public about possible causes of climate change. 

And that’s just one example.  There’s plenty more detail in the paper if you’ve got the energy. 

The point is not to seek to batter Svensmark’s and his colleagues’ reputation (and I don’t suppose they’re watching anyway).  As Mae-Wan Ho and Peter Saunders suggest, scepticism in itself is a good thing, and there is no particular reason to suggest that these sceptics are anything other than decent scientists using data in a way they think is acceptable, just as there is no reason to doubt Peter Laut’s intentions in challening them.  

That’s the perfectly valid cut and thrust of scientific challenge and counter-challenge. 

The point is rather that accusations of lack of scientific rigour can cut both ways in the climate change debate. 

The point is to ‘call out’ people like Melanie Phillips and now Andrew Neil, who seek to appoint themselves as guardians of the truth against what they’d like to have us believe is a crypto-communist conspiracy to push AGW theory down the throats of decent Spectator readers (though for what reason such a conspiracy might exist, I’m still not entirely clear).  

They know no more than I do about this stuff, and they need to be challenged on the use of their media power to sell a version of science which happens to suit their career-as-controversial-right-wing-journalist ends.  

Unity at Libcon does that much better than me, but I thought I should make the effort.  This climate change stuff is important. 





Categories: Miscellaneous

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