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Tuesday 1 March 2011
Letters: Climate sceptics
The exchange of emails between Steve Connor, your Science Editor, and "climate sceptic" Freeman Dyson (25 February) revealed one reason why the media should not treat this subject as a matter of "two sides" to an issue.
After initially explaining his scepticism on specific scientific grounds, Dyson soon resorted to the generalism that debate and scepticism are in themselves good for science. True, but iconoclasm for its own sake, without evidence, is mere intellectual self-gratification.
If the climate scientists are right, and ever since the issue erupted in 1988 the evidence for that has steadily increased, the consequences are dire and are already under way.
The media has to accept, as governments mostly have, that society needs to make a political and philosophical decision about what to do, not wait until the supply of climate sceptics runs out, which may take generations.
The media has some responsibility because it is society's main window on science. Its coverage needs to be proportional to truth and rationality. Sadly, Connor is a rarity amongst journalists in actually understanding the science.
Yes, climate sceptics deserve a hearing, but not 50 per cent of the debate, as media organisations such as the BBC seem to think. As Connor hints, proportionate space would be more like that which, say, the BBC might devote to the good old Flat Earth Society if it were to object to Brian Cox's programmes on planets and the universe, or to Marxists who demanded a sceptic's right of response to every economics report.
Wells next the Sea, Norfolk
Freeman Dyson accepts the main premises of anthropogenic global warming. But he distrusts climate models and says that climatologists have become too dogmatic in their reliance on them.
However, if we don't listen to the experts, who can we rely on? Do we routinely ignore expert advice in other walks of life, on the grounds that scientific consensuses occasionally turn out to be wrong? In medicine there have been numerous examples of consensuses being overturned, yet if we are ill we still go to the doctor and take his or her advice.
Professor Dyson believes that the remedies for global warming will be worse than the disease. But this depends upon how serious the disease turns out to be. Unfortunately it is here that most uncertainty lies. It may be true that taking the required measures will be very costly and will damage economic prospects for developing countries in particular. The big question is, though, can we – and they – afford not to take them?
At last, The Independent gives some space to contrary views on climate change. Freeman Dyson blames The Independent for giving its readers "the party line" and he is right. Reporting reasonable concerns about the climate debate is not, as Steve Connor caricatures it, "like ringing up the Flat Earth Society and asking them to comment on new discoveries in plate tectonics".
The issues raised in climate science are not mainly about the details of physics. They encompass the validity of science based on computer models, accuracy of temperature measurements, refusal of scientists to be open about their methods, the stifling of debate by saying "the science is settled", the lack of falsifiability of many climate predictions, financial interests (on both sides), the tendency of all errors to be in the same direction, failures of peer review, the degree to which the response to climate change is arguable given the scientific conclusions, and much more.
Some people think that global warming is a conspiracy or scam, and I am particularly sceptical about that too. However, the debate has become polarised by requiring either an oath of allegiance to the orthodoxy or to be branded a denier. This is what many people do not like.
Freeman Dyson is regarded as a leading climate change sceptic, but there was little evidence of scientific rigour in his debate with Steve Connor. He concedes that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that levels are now higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years. Yet he denies that the global average temperature increase is due to rising levels of CO2.
In response to Connor's query: "Where then has the extra trapped heat gone to?", Professor Dyson describes the issue as a "narrow, technical question". It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is fundamental to the debate.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
Acting is not just for the posh
I wish to correct assertions made by Julie Burchill in her article, "Young? Working-class? Unconnected?" (17 February).
Students at Lamda are not funded by Dadas (dance and drama awards). Lamda is an affiliate of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama and as such is funded like any other higher education institution by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England). Fees for our higher education courses are £3,375, the same as any other undergraduate degree course, and Lamda recruits entirely on talent, not on ability to pay the fees.
More than 20 per cent of our students earn some form of scholarship or bursary to support them during their time with us, money that Lamda raises itself to ensure that the most talented students have access to our courses, regardless of their background.
If Julie would care to come and meet our students, I don't think she would find them to be "boorish, posh, entitled types", rather a mix of socially engaged, creative and motivated individuals from all backgrounds. I think our previous students Paterson Joseph, Anna Maxwell Martin, David Oyelowo, Samuel Barnett, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ruth Wilson would attest to this.
In September 2012, along with every other HE institution, we may have to increase our fees to £9,000 because of the loss of our core teaching grant after government cuts. If anything is going to make access to higher education harder, this will. Maybe Julie Burchill should address herself to this issue, rather than her erroneous assumptions about drama schools.
Principal, LAMDA, London W14
I am always astonished by the anger of many of your correspondents in the wake of a Julie Burchill column (Letters, 26 February). She never upsets me in the slightest. But then, I haven't read a single word she has written since you so inexplicably employed her.
Little as my opinion matters anywhere, hooded as I am and slouched against the wall with a bitten-down roll-up cigarette, scowling at passers by, I quite like Julie Burchill.
Obsession with 'healthy' food
In an article on obesity ("Why our very big society is a sign that something's gone wrong", 19 February), Christina Patterson takes the time to scorn a mental disorder, the very concept of orthorexia, "a word made up by, of course, a Californian doctor ... apparently on the rise". Orthorexia nervosa is a recently classified syndrome and was indeed a term first used by a Californian doctor, Steven Bratman, though I don't see what being Californian has to do with anything.
It's more than simply eating "vibrant living" foods, just as anorexia is more than simply watching your weight, but when an individual becomes so obsessed with healthy eating that it begins to infringe on their psychological health and lifestyle.
An obsession about anything can become harmful when it begins to interfere negatively in people's lives, as when someone's relationships suffer and their health deteriorates because they're so fixated with staying pure in their eating habits that they won't eat out or even visit friends and family.
Orthorexia is not a medically recognised term, but the subject of eating disorders is not just about starving, bingeing, and purging any more. Today, healthcare professionals are learning about new ways people can harm themselves with unhealthy eating habits and exercise rituals.
No education without facts
When will educationalists such as Martin Priestly (letter, 21 February) stop pretending that they have found the Holy Grail of what education is "for"?
In claiming that factual awareness is irrelevant, he makes the same tired error yet again: why can't he accept that knowledge and skills are two sides of the same coin, each as valid as the other? How does he expect people to develop thinking skills without any knowledge-base on which to use them?
Understanding one's place in the bigger scheme of things is as much about the past as the future, and as much a matter of knowledge as skills, so we need to include it all. One cannot effectively question anything until one has acquired a fair appreciation of its nature.
The context in which many young people see themselves appears to be contracting at an alarming rate, and often seems to consist of little more than self-gratification and an obsession with their celebrities of choice; I now often encounter even able children who exhibit an extreme narrowness of outlook in their lives.
At last, a debate on Europe
It is good to see one of our main political parties finally being brave enough to open up debate on whether Britain should leave the European Union ("Labour weighs calls for referendum on Europe", 19 February).
The last time the British public had any direct say on Europe was nearly 40 years ago, when we were conned into joining what was then "the Common Market". Since then, EU powers have grown beyond all recognition, like a creeping dictatorship, from a loose trading association with basic ground rules into a wannabe European superstate, that has neutered UK sovereignty and parliamentary democracy with a barrage of unwanted and ill-fitting legislation and regulations, fundamentally at odds with the prosperity and global competitiveness of the UK economy.
Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis
Women in the boardroom
To be a successful business person, you have to be racing fit, writes Elly Woolston (letter, 24 February) – "prepared to be flexible with your diary and travel arrangements, able to keep ahead of the game and with the ability to keep delivering work that is fresh and dynamic. Sometimes women are not able to fulfil all these points because of family commitments."
In other words, if you want to have a family (as I gather many male business people do, too) you need to have a wife.
According to your correspondent Elly Woolston, more women would sit in our boardrooms if only they were "racing fit, intellectually and physically sharp enough to think on your feet ..." and so on and on. Like the men who occupy all the boardrooms now, is the implication.
Well, as a survivor of several male-dominated businesses, I'd like to quote intellectually sharp business person Sheelagh Whittaker, who said that we will only have true equality when we have as many incompetent women on boards as incompetent men.
My father taught at Winchester College during the Second World War, and used to describe the occasion during a royal visit to the school when the headmaster, Spencer Leeson, was presenting his staff to the King. Came the moment when the royal party reached the head of music, Dr Sydney Watson, and the progress dissolved into hilarity as three stammerers, king, headmaster and music director, stood there, all quite unable to utter a word and all three laughing helplessly. A moment of happy fellowship.
Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, speaks of the economic benefits of faster travel from a possible rise in speed limit to 80mph (report, 28 February). Presumably he means the increased petrol sales from the greater consumption at high speed, and the increased employment in the health industries, and in vehicle maintenance and repair. Could there be a downside, I wonder?
Notices featuring the conditional apology "Sorry for any inconvenience" are frequently displayed in situations such as roadworks, where the reader is quite certain to be inconvenienced. Should the word "any" not be replaced by an honest "the"?
Perspectives on Libya
Thank goodness for the young rebels
I was appalled at the dismissive and patronising tone adopted by Howard Jacobson in commenting on the Middle East uprisings and his "drug-induced carnival" view of the slaughter and suffering (26 February). Was he perhaps under the influence of Gaddafi's speech on the protesters being young, naughty youths on drugs?
These young "evil-doers" are the ones battling (with remarkable courage unknown in the Arab World thus far) and falling in growing numbers to the inhumanity of a morbid, old and crumpling status quo.
Yes, it is the young who fight revolutions. Thank goodness for that. How else could you topple these ossified yet "wise" generals?
For our forces, it's back to the Crimea
The recent events in Libya, coming as they do immediately after the announcement by the British Legion that the Government has reneged on its promise to enshrine the Military Covenant in law, shows how desperately we need to look at what is being done with, and to, the armed forces of the UK.
Were the Falkland Islands to be subjected to another invasion, it is highly doubtful that the UK could muster the resources to either retain or retake them. The fact that the RAF and the SAS were able to mount a rescue mission deep into the Libyan desert should not lull anyone into a false sense of security; it was of necessity a secretive and penny-packet mission, designed to be done covertly and without much in the way of "top cover" had the Hercules aircraft been under serious threat on the way in or out. How long before even a modest response, such as this, is beyond the resources available to the UK's armed forces?
The armed forces are under-resourced by an administration crying "poverty" as it sheds crocodile tears over the wounded and slain emerging from Afghanistan. It has never been more necessary to have a real Covenant in place than it is today, because the armed forces have not been as ill served by their political masters of all persuasions since the days of the Crimean War.
Peddling arms for democracy?
When Cameron visited the new Egypt, now ruled by a military junta, with representatives of British arms manufacturers in tow, did he really believe he was peddling democracy?
Anybody who imagined that the readmission of the Gaddafi clan to the global community could have a "civilising" effect on them manifested an intellect inconsistent with holding high office. Economic gain continues to trump humanitarian principle, and common sense as well.
Dictators left with nothing to lose
Once upon a time Britain, America or France would arrange a safe, "self-funded" haven for once useful but now embarrassing dictators, genocidal or not, when it became absolutely obvious that the majority of their dictatees had had enough and were out of their control.
The policy of freezing Gaddafi's overseas assets will simply encourage him to fight to the death, taking many of his people with him. It may provide its authors with the modern "feel-good factor", but where is the common sense in it?
Is what's happening in the Middle East an example of the "Big Society"?
Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire
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