He’s been described as a “national treasure”, and in many ways he is. Certainly I’ve spent many hours watching his natural history programmes, and I dare say many other people have too. But my heart sank on reading this:
In times of national crisis people naturally turn to authority figures for solutions, which is why recently Sir David Attenborough is being asked about the weather. He’s being asked about it a lot.
What the heck does David Attenborough know about weather? I mean, really? He’s a naturalist and a broadcaster, not a climate scientist. Why on earth would anyone ask him about the weather?
And what “national crisis”? Has this overcast English summer now become a “national crisis”? It’s the same sort of overcast summer we’ve had every year for the past 5 years. So what’s David Attenborough got to say about it?
Sir David Attenborough: ‘This awful summer? We’ve only ourselves to blame…’
Sir David believes the washout summer may be down to climate change. As a credible explanation he points to research by the University of Sheffield which suggests melting Arctic ice has slowed the jet stream, causing it to break into loops which have ushered to the UK unseasonably cold and wet weather systems. And he is convinced humans are the main cause of this.
Well, there are any number of possible explanations for Britain’s unremarkable weather. Most importantly of all, no explanations are actually needed.
“There is no question that climate change is happening; the only arguable point is what part humans are playing in it,” he says. “I would be absolutely astounded if population growth and industrialisation and all the stuff we are pumping into the atmosphere hadn’t changed the climatic balance. Of course it has. There is no valid argument for denial.”
“No question”? “No valid argument”? Well, in my experience, England has been rather cooler over the past decade than it was in the previous decade. And I seem to remember we were being told it was going to get hotter.
I can’t see which is worse: All these people being so foolish as to ask David Attenborough about the weather, or David Attenborough being so foolish as to publicly express a strong opinion on the matter. Why don’t they ask Jamie Oliver? Or Simon Cowell? Or maybe they do?
What’s the matter with these people? They see imaginary threats everywhere. Secondhand smoke. Carbon dioxide. Sugar. Alcohol. And now the institution that is David Attenborough has revealed that he’s one of the fruitcakes too. I could almost feel my respect for him (and he really was a great naturalist and broadcaster) draining away like water out of a bathtub.
It’s becoming an almost routine experience for me these days: a sudden and complete loss of respect for some formerly respected figure, when they come out with some imbecile conviction.
I was wondering today (something some of my commenters have also occasionally wondered) whether there was something in the water that was driving this epidemic of imbecility. But I think the article itself suggests a more likely cause: that people place their trust in “authorities.” They no longer trust their own ordinary common sense. They instead trust “experts.” And in the case of David Attenborough, they are placing their trust in someone who isn’t any sort of authority at all in the field of climate and weather.
I don’t unquestioningly trust authorities. I never have. I’ll listen to them, but then I’ll think about what they’ve said, and make up my own mind whether what they’re saying seems plausible or likely. And in doing that I’ll use all my experience and education. What I don’t do is to just lap up everything they say, and swallow the lot.
And if other people can’t do this, then it must be because of either a lack of experience or a lack of education. Or both. And since a great many of today’s scare stories revolve around scientific issues – global warming, secondhand smoke, etc. – I’m beginning to think that it may be that it’s people who lack any sort of science education, but who nevertheless regard themselves as ‘educated’, who are particularly prone to becoming caught up in these sorts of panics. After all, if you’ve spent your formative years reading literature or history or law, and never studied mathematics or physics or chemistry, you just may not be equipped to critically consider scientific questions like global warming. In fact, you may not have the first clue about them. And will perforce have to defer to ‘experts’ of one sort or other.
So it may well be an example of the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
And who are the people that populate the political classes and the mass media? They are almost all arts graduates. Those are the people who go into the BBC, and into newspapers, and into politics. I read a few months back that there are hardly any MPs in the UK parliament who have any science qualifications. David Cameron has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His predecessor, Gordon Brown, had a degree in history. Tony Blair had a degree in Jurisprudence. None of these subjects has anything to do with science. And all these people swallowed both the global warming scare and the secondhand smoke scare. And so it seems plausible that this was because none of them was personally capable of critically appraising such scientific ideas – because they had never had to do such things in the course of their education.
But, because they’re working in the media (like Deborah Arnott) and in politics, they have great presentation skills: they’re all very good at expressing themselves both in the written word and in speeches and on TV, while simultaneously concealing their underlying ignorance (of which they are usually blissfully unaware).
Conversely, for the most part, people who spend their lives working in science are usually not very articulate. And they are easily drowned out by their more eloquent counterparts.
The upshot is that you have a lot of scientifically-illiterate, loud-mouthed poseurs running the country. And a lot of tongue-tied scientists who don’t. And the result is a series of catastrophic policy decisions – like the smoking ban and carbon reduction measures.
And a further wider result is the process of ‘dumbing down’, in which science is replaced by rhetoric and politics and art. For once you have arts graduates working as editors in science magazines (like New Scientist, Scientific American, Nature, etc.) these once-august publications gradually turn into variants of Vogue magazine.
But to return to Sir David Attenborough, we find that he studied geology and zoology at Cambridge university. Well, sorry, but that’s not science either. And furthermore he has since spent his entire life working in the media (notably the BBC). He’s an excellent presenter. He’s been the brilliant front man for any number of documentaries. But any sort of scientist? No.
The more that I think about all this, the more that I think that people should be given a good all-round education. They should be taught languages and history and art and music. But they must also be taught mathematics and physics and chemistry. It should never be a matter of doing one or the other (which is how the UK education system used to work). People should do both equally. Because if they don’t they are going to be deficient, either in the capacity for rational and critical thinking (the science bit) or in self-expression (the arts bit), both of which deficiencies are fatal, albeit in very different ways.
And this may be somewhere near the root of all our problems.