Copping off

There’s a man I follow on twitter whose tweeting is by turns infuriating and brilliant. I follow him because he writes about tv and comedy (he’s an author of several books on show-business and is also the biographer of Les Dawson). This man hates Quentin Letts. To him, Letts is the epitome of… how shall I put it? Perhaps a simple list might be the best way of summing up his revulsion. To him, Letts is:

Golf clubs
Toby Jugs
The weak type who would’ve smarmed himself in with the school bully
The Daily Mail!
Nigel Farage

Last night, for example, he tweeted:

There are few greater feelings than knowing that Quentin Fucking Letts is on television somewhere and you’re not watching the wee rodent.

So you get the gist – anything vaguely UKIPy, or Daily Mailish, he’s all over it. And yet here he is watching old copies of the Russell Harty show and noticing incredibly detailed parallels with Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, in other words, being completely charming as a comedy/tv nerd:

Last night, I watched a 1984 Russell Harty show. Band on the first floor of the set. Another Partridge parallel.

Anyway, this person is also, as comedy nerds should be, a defender of the right to be as offensive, shocking and puerile as you like so today I had an urge to tweet to him about Letts’s programme being expunged from the BBC archives: you don’t like him, but surely you must be against his ‘unfunny, ineffectual, smarmy, jaunty, nothingness of a show’ (as he would probably put it) being treated as if it were dynamite under the foundations of science? But then I realised – there’s no point. There is absolutely no point. People’s tribal allegiances outweigh all other factors now. And it’s surprising to realise just how much opinion, what weight of ontological scaffolding is borne on the thin premises of whether somebody might be cool enough to be associated with, or be seen defending. It really often is that simple.

I felt this personally in November 2011 when I got the coach up to London to attend an open meeting on shale gas at the House of Commons. On the panel were Matt Ridley, Donna Laframboise, Ian Plimer (and one other) and in the audience was Jonny Ball and Piers Corbyn, but also, to my then embarrassment and discomfort, Peter Lilley. This is what I wrote about it then:

The trouble with being a ‘climate sceptic’ is you feel a bit of a right-wing !*@^. Being in opposition to such bastions of liberal, rational, ethical and progressive ideas – and such nice and clever people – as Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, Robin Ince and Simon Singh feels like being in opposition to goodness (R. Ince), beauty (B. Cox), openness (B. Goldacre & S. Singh) and hope itself (climate-change activism as a whole).

This was brought home by the meeting in Committee Room 14 yesterday. Although Dr. Philip Stott argued well from a leftish point of view and Donna Laframboise (a woman!) savaged the corruption within the IPCC with quiet rage, unfortunately the room also contained Peter Lilley and the slightly rabid man who sat next to me who wanted Chris Huhne shot and saw AGW very much in the Delingpolian vein as a plot by Marxist watermelons to impose a socialist state.

You can see the problem, then. With these Tory duffers on the sceptical side how on earth is climate-change scepticism ever going to capture the hearts and minds of idealistic young left-wing girls whose adoration and twitter-fellowship is essential to feeling morally sound, ethically twinkly and, most important of all, cool? The answer is it isn’t.

And it may never do.

I wouldn’t feel like that now. Lilley voted against his party on the Syrian bombing – one of a handful, just like he was when he voted against the Climate Change Act, so he’s nothing other than a good and principled man. Nevertheless, I did feel it then and these feelings of sheer revulsion at the merest possibility of being associated or in-step with someone you just don’t like because of all the lifestyle signifiers and taste-signals it would switch on in other peoples heads is still, I think, a massive factor in climate scepticism being sneered at.

I say ‘other people’s heads’. What this really means is ‘attractive people’s heads who I’d like to go to bed with’.

We all just want to COP off.

This is the rest of what I wrote about that day for the sake of completion:

But who knows. Things can change. What’s needed is the confidence to face the truth that currently cool nerds like B. Cox and B. Goldacre are given to vapid posturing, self-flattery and groupthink – some of the very things they profess to loathe and battle against.

The point is, as a scientist, if you really want to get involved in politics then take it seriously: read more – if you don’t want to or haven’t got the time then stick within the parameters of your research. What’s needed, in other words, is a recognition that politics, the job of shaping human society, amounts to more than just expressing a preference for one scientific study over another and as such comes before science. Which is not to agree with the postmodernists; pointing out that science operates in a world governed by competing interests and if it’s not careful it will find itself open to coercion and ‘noble-cause corruption’ might seem to be saying science’s claims to truth telling are as valid as those of religion or magic… but it’s not. The latter assertion is false, whereas the assertion that scientists are guided by powerful ideas from outside of science which move them to provide ‘evidence’ to suit a particular policy direction, that statement is obviously true. Politics and society do a lot of deciding before we even get to the science. This is what Goldacre, Cox, Ince and Singh are too lazy (or too arrogant) to examine. Necessarily their political advocacy and activism (if you can call it that) is a kind of pantomime. Sincere politics is being suffocated by the giant inflatable boot of pantomime politics. And only sincerity should matter to any idealist worth the badge.


  1. Plenty food for thought there, and many a good chuckle too!

    If only we could crack this one : ‘how on earth is climate-change scepticism ever going to capture the hearts and minds of idealistic young left-wing girls’, a new tribe of climate campaigners would soon appear on the streets, or camped below the turbines!

    That was an inspired day you are recalling! The heavy-duty stuff captured in the last paragraph: Sincere politics is being suffocated by the giant inflatable boot of pantomime politics. And only sincerity should matter to any idealist worth the badge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What have you got against Peter Lilley? He’s not my cup of tea politically, but I like the fact that he had oil interests in Kazakhstan – something so weird no Greenpeace activist would dare to make it up. And he wants to legalise cannabis.
    He’s my mum’s M.P. She can’t stand him, though she’s always voted Tory. She once considered voting Liberal but the candidate turned up at her flower arranging class in the local church with an earring in his ear, so she stuck with Lilley. Just goes to confirm everything you say about our unshakable prejudices.


  3. Your Mum voting for a cannabis legaliser on the basis of the other (male) candidate’s earing is too wildly Alan Bennettish to be believable. I think Lewandowsky may have been right about you, Geoff.


  4. The BBC may have disappeared their own public copy of Quentin Letts’ broadcast that dared to question the models and the failed global-warming predictions, but it is still available at Soundcloud:

    Presumably the BBC will have employees assigned to rooting out such heresy on the internet and will have the right to demand that it is taken down once it is discovered by their enforcers.


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