What’s liberal about booing off Johnny Ball?

The jeering of a climate sceptic by supposedly liberal atheists confirms that questioning manmade climate change is the new blasphemy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech

Everyone hates the tabloid phrase ‘You couldn’t make it up’, I know, but there are times when no other form of words will do. On Tuesday night Johnny Ball, the veteran children’s TV presenter who introduced my generation (thirtysomethings) to the wonders of science and maths, was booed and slow-handclapped off stage in London for daring to express scepticism about manmade climate change. And who was in the audience, doing the booing, the jeering, the hissing and the chanting of ‘shame, shame, shame’ until a ‘shaken-looking’ Ball agreed to ‘leave the stage’? (1) Liberal atheists who claim to be allergic to orthodox beliefs, and campaigning scientists who have defended ‘free speech for scientists’. As I said, you couldn’t make it up.

Ball was invited to speak at ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People’, one of an increasing number of religious right-style get-togethers at which hundreds of individuals mock and pour scorn on the deluded masses – except the gathered individuals are self-styled rationalists rather than Bible-bashers, and their targets are the thickos who believe in God or receive chiropractic treatment rather than drunks or single mums. Ball, who presented the BBC kids’ science show Think of a Number from 1977 to 1984, decided to devote his stint on stage to singing a George Formby-style ditty about the English physicist John Dalton, before making a speech in which he criticised the ‘bad science’ of global warming and said that natural emissions from insects and spiders (‘spiders farting’) are more damaging to the climate than fossil fuels (2).

Bad move. The new collective of liberal atheists, of agitated ‘rationalists’, of Keepers Of The Scientific Truth As Revealed Unto Them By Richard Dawkins, can tolerate nothing so intolerable as someone taking the piss out of scientific theories about climate change. According to one report there were ‘slow handclaps, whistles and jeers’ (3). A blogger who attended the event said ‘a cry of “shame” from the audience broke the dam, the boos started, and a perplexed and shaken-looking Ball was finally forced from the stage’ (4). No wonder Ball looked perplexed: he thought he had been invited to a free, open-minded, rationalist ideas-knockabout and then found himself being ‘forced from the stage’ as if he were a tattooed Satanist who had gatecrashed a bishops’ tea party down Lambeth way.

Ball says ‘the reaction of the audience [depressed] me’, as well it might. He also says that he just wants to poke holes in the idea that the world is spinning towards some kind of bad behaviour-induced hellfire (global warming): ‘We are depressing children by saying the world is coming to an end through climate change. This is simply wrong’, he said in an interview. Whatever about ‘farting spiders’, on that point he is absolutely right: the warping of scientific facts to tell a story about an imminent End of Days that is being somehow caused by cheap flights and hamburgers is one of the worst aspects of the politics of climate change. (Someone being booed by atheists for challenging the notion of End of Days? Once again, and hopefully for the last time, you couldn’t make it up.) But Ball now says he realises his speech was ‘a mistake’ and he won’t be repeating it at future atheist-scientist gatherings. Reader, he has been re-educated, or at least silenced, his ranting consigned to the Sin Bin of History by the illiberal liberals, or maybe intolerant toleraters, who make up contemporary ‘rationalist’ circles.

There are more ironies to this story than even Alanis Morissette could handle. First there is the irony of liberal atheists, gathered together by the liberal-atheist comedians Robin Ince and Chris Addison (‘Liberal-atheist comedians’? Come back, Jimmy Tarbuck, all is forgiven), booing someone for questioning what has become a debate-strangling, genuflect-demanding orthodoxy: that man caused global warming through his wicked behaviour, that he now must repent for it, and that if he doesn’t we are Doomed with a capital D. In fact, how’s this for ironic: Tuesday night’s Ball incident confirms that the real religiosity that governs society today – far more successfully and suffocatingly than the Catholic Church (collapsing) or the CofE (collapsed) or the religious right (bogeyman) – is the religiosity of climate change, attended and promoted not by smock-wearing God-squadders but by corduroy-sporting God-doubters.

In so many ways, climate-change alarmism, that ugly mish-mash of scientific findings, political hysteria and industry-demonising greenery, resembles traditional religious outlooks. The Science has replaced The Gospels as the container of truth about mankind’s downfallen condition and what he must do to rectify it and save himself. Green activists now march behind banners saying ‘The Scientists Have Spoken’ and give interviews in which they say ‘The Science demands that we [insert some miserabilist policy idea here]’ in the same way that priests once said ‘God demands that we [insert something about not having sex here]’. Carbon-offsetting, where you pay to plant a tree to make up for your eco-sins, smells a lot like Catholic penance. Talk about the ‘heat death of the universe’ (atheist hero Christopher Hitchens’ words) sounds a lot like Armageddon. And most importantly, the labelling of anyone who questions the politics, the science or the consequences (less development, more mud huts) of climate-change alarmism as a ‘DENIER’ springs straight from The Inquisition, when those who questioned the Bible were similarly branded with the D-word. It’s a very weird atheistic rationalism which borrows so liberally from the illiberalism of religious tyranny.

But the key thing here is that climate-change alarmism only ‘resembles’ traditional religions – it’s not the exact same thing, of course! No, because, if anything, it’s actually kind of worse. At least the old religions encouraged us to bend the knee, to live in a state of bread-and-butter self-denial and to censor our inner doubts in the interests of finally getting to some heavenly place in which we would meet Jesus Christ, live in the clouds and eat Philadelphia cheese all day. The dogma of environmentalism, by contrast, wants us to partake in all those backward things – especially self-denial and self-censorship – merely as a way of keeping the planet clean and tidy and not leaving behind an ‘eco-footprint’ when we leave. There’s no transcendence of everyday tedium, no final reward for goodness, no pearly gates… it’s just self-punishment for the sake of self-punishment. Life’s a bitch and then you die.

The second, and most notable, irony of this week’s Ball debacle is that many of those who attended the atheist shebang are defenders of ‘free speech for scientists’. They support Simon Singh’s campaign to reform the English libel laws after he was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning their claims and practices. Indeed, Singh was in the audience that seems to have momentarily forgotten about, er, free speech, as it forced the shaken-looking Ball to leave the stage. The comedian Dara O Briain, who was on telly the other day slagging off the libel laws for curtailing scientific debate and ‘quashing dissent’ (5), compered the atheist get-together at which scientific debate was curtailed and dissent was quashed, announcing ‘I am shell-shocked’ – no, not by the treatment of Ball, but by Ball’s sinful words. ‘I’m discombobulated by a childhood hero doing that’, O Briain announced (6).

This reveals a high level of hypocrisy and double standards amongst today’s defenders of free speech for some (respectable scientists) but not for others (evil deniers). But it also reveals something very important about free speech itself – namely that it is threatened by laws, yes, but is often more urgently and thoroughly threatened by conformism, by a generally accepted way of viewing things, by what that great warrior for liberty John Stuart Mill described as ‘custom’. Indeed, Mill said that of the three major threats to liberty, the ‘tyranny of custom and tradition’ – that is, a non-statute based sense of correct wisdom – was the worst. These binding rules are enforced not by coercion, said Mill, but by the notion of unquestionable ‘right and proper ideas’ held by all respectable members of society. Or as the Ancient Greek leader Pericles described it: ‘that code which, although unwritten, cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.’ (7)

Climate-change alarmism has become just such a code. The ‘despotism of custom’, accepting the general and apparently correct view of things, is a ‘hindrance to human advancement’ and the ‘sprit of liberty’, said Mill. It discourages inquisitiveness and eccentricity of thought and action: ‘[T]he mind itself is bowed to the yoke… peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes, until by dint of not following their own nature, these [followers of custom] have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved; they become generally incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own.’ (8) If there is a better description of the robotic adherents to the scientific-political dogma of climate-change alarmism, I have yet to read it.

And now another eccentric, with his nonsense about ‘spider farting’ and his common sense about this not being the end of the world, has been publicly humiliated and intellectually cowed. Yes, the use of libel laws against scientists (responsible or otherwise) and against anyone else is a disgrace, as spiked has been arguing for considerably longer than many of today’s libel reformers. But the use of unwritten codes to make a public example of disobedient thinkers, and to discourage serious, critical, eccentric or, yes, sometimes bizarre question-asking, is in many ways more frightening still. And the fact that those unwritten codes are being wielded precisely by the ‘free speech for science’ lobby… well, I’m going to have to say it one more time, aren’t I? You couldn’t make it up.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Stuart Blackman pointed out that climate change is not beyond questioning. Brendan O’Neill examined global warming’s chilling effect on free speech. Ian Murray wondered if environmentalism is the opiate of the liberals. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Free speech.

(1) Johnny Ball booed by atheists over climate change denial, Daily Telegraph, 16 December 2009

(2) Johnny Ball booed by atheists over climate change denial, Daily Telegraph, 16 December 2009

(3) Johnny Ball booed by atheists over climate change denial, Daily Telegraph, 16 December 2009

(4) Johnny Ball booed by atheists over climate change denial, Daily Telegraph, 16 December 2009

(5) Comic Dara O’Briain says libel laws ‘quash dissent’, BBC News, 9 December 2009

(6) Balls to Johnny: comedy crowd turn on climate change denier Ball, Chortle, 16 December 2009

(7) See Pericles’ Funeral Oration by NS Gill

(8) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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