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An Interview With Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker, former editor of Private Eye, Fleet Street journalist and co-author of Scared To Death, in conversation with Pan Pantziarka of LondonBookReview.com.

PP: What has been the reaction to the book in the more liberal parts of the media - such as the Independent, the Guardian and the BBC?

CB: Since our book showed no paper to have been more gullible or hysterical in promoting scares than the Observer, this was perhaps Inevitably the one which gave our book easily its most hostile review. Ignoring most of the book completely, its science editor concentrated on just one short passage in our 80-page chapter on global warming, accusing us of having invented two quotations from a distinguished astrophysicist Professor Nigel Weiss ('Weiss never said any such thing', he wrote, 'it is hard to credit such sloppiness'). As Weiss himself conceded, in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, we had quoted him correctly.

Most interesting was the response of the BBC which, as we show in the book, was at the forefront of promoting every scare we describe, from Mrs Currie's panic over salmonella in eggs to global warming. At national level BBC radio pointedly ignored the book - but several local BBC talk-shows gave us lengthy interviews, with their presenters showing great sympathy to its general thesis!

PP: Yours is one of the few skeptical voices in the media on global warming, do you feel that this is changing? Is there now a greater willingness to give the skeptical viewpoint?

CB: Certainly the BBC and the press in general remain absurdly one-sided in their coverage of the global warming scare, but two things have recently been changing the debate. One has been a significantly more skeptical and better informed response from many members of the public (as can be seen from blogs and comment forums). The other has been the recent dramatic drop in global temperatures and the record snowfalls recorded this winter right across the northern hemisphere, except in Western Europe. Although they have been generally ignored by the British media, the extraordinary events of recent months have raised the largest question marks so far over the CO2-global warming thesis. If the 'orthodoxy' was correct, with CO2 levels continuing to rise, the recent events in Asia and north American should simply not have happened.

PP: As the evidence becomes ever more inconvenient for AGW (anthropogenic global warming) advocates, the alarmism grows ever shriller. How much longer can the fiction of consensus be maintained?

CB: That is what might be called the $64 trillion question! It has been in some ways amusing to see the excuses the warmists have come up with for the present cooling (they explain that lower global temperatures merely 'mask the underlying warming trend') and it would be premature to insist from the evidence so far that the late 20th century warming has definitely gone into long-term reverse. But the pointers are there, and what is really worrying is just how unanimously our politicians have fallen for the 'orthodoxy' and allowed it to shape such a range of far-reaching and costly policy decisions. The claimed scientific 'consensus', which was always a fiction, is certainly under greater challenge than ever before - prompting, as you say, an ever shriller and more intolerant response from its promoters. But we reckon that it will take several years of declining temperatures before the political consensus comes under serious challenge - by which time colossal financial damage will have been done, from all the Quixotic measures our politicians are putting into place to fight an imaginary problem. The only difference is that Don Quixote's delusion made him want to destroy windmills, whereas his latter-day successors want to build them.

PP: Many of the actors in the scares you describe seem to suffer no consequences from the chaos that they help bring about. People like Ray Wyre, who was a so-called expert on satanic abuse of children, still crops up in the media as an expert. How is it that they can get away with this?

CB: Another very good question! Even when the scares they promoted have been comprehensively discredited, like Edwina Currie's over eggs, it is hard to think of any of the 'pushers' of the scares we describe who have really suffered lasting loss of reputation as a result., Even though Mrs Currie achieved absolutely nothing in her political career, she is still - thanks largely to the prominence given to her by her folly over eggs - for some reason treated by the media as a minor celebrity, In human terms, the 'satanic abuse' scare was chilling beyond belief, yet Mr Wyre continues to be reverentially received as an 'expert' by Channel Four News. A large part of the reason for this is the relentless triviality of our media, which are only too happy to blow up a scare but then, when the damage has been done and the scare fades away, lose all interest in the aftermath. A good example was Dr John Patteson, chief architect of the BSE/CJD scare, who was egged on by Jeremy Paxman to agree that within a few years BSE might cause 500,000 deaths. Yet a year later, when Patteson admitted he had got the whole thing wrong, the media showed hardly the slightest interest - and the Establishment rewarded him with a knighthood!

PP: It sometimes appears that we in the West are desperate to believe bad news, no matter how incredible it may appear (such as the belief in the satanic abuse of children). Do you think this is inherent in our make-up?

CB: Of course bad news has always taken precedence over good news, just as disaster movies make great entertainment. As we say at the end of the book, one reason why scares have become such a feature of recent decades is that the West has lived through a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. There hasn't been much real life-and-death drama to demand our attention. Whipping up fear through wildly exaggerated health scares have become one of the indulgences of a spoiled and comfortable age. But, as we also point out in the book, the public at large has often remained remarkably immune to these panics. They have been largely artefacts, created by scientists who have won attention by getting something badly wrong, then hysterically promoted by the media and the political class. 'Satanic abuse' was entirely the creation of the social workers and a few self-styled 'experts'. If the public had been allowed to know more of what was going on at the time, there would have been an explosion of outrage. But you are right to ask - what does this tell us about human nature? Although we touch on it at the end of the book, it is a question worthy of much more thought and collective self-examination.

PP: Do you think that a greater understanding of basic statistics and the scientific method would help the public understand complex stories - such as global warming?

CB: A large part of the problem here is that the media have by and large lost the will or ability to research the facts behind the stories they report. As our book shows, they tend to report news on a very superficial level as little more than a soap opera, part of the entertainment industry. Digging for the facts which might help people to understand the news better takes time, a lot of hard work and much more willingness to question the so-called 'experts' than is commonly found in modern journalism. In every example we report on, there were scientists or experts who questioned the scare as it developed, but their scepticism was ignored because it did not suit the 'scare narrative'. One of the more salutary lessons of all these scares should be how easily we treat someone as an 'expert' worthy of attention, just because he has a label round his neck saying 'scientist', even though he may have strayed way outside his proper field of expertise and be talking total b***s.

PP: How much do you think the rise of a political class - with no experience or understanding of science or industry - has contributed to the willingness to propagate the big scares?

CB: Enormously - so long as, in the 'political class', we include not only politicians but officials, most of the media and the more powerful lobby groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Every scare we describe involved scientists or experts who had in some way gone off the rails, politicians and officials who did not have enough intelligence or strength of character to question them, and a media only too happy to join in 'pushing' their mistaken reading of the evidence. Modern society, as we know, is very technical and it has become harder than ever for 'outsiders', including politicians and the media, to develop the kind of rational understanding which will allow them to challenge these examples of insanity when they arise.

But the central purpose of our book is to identify the 'scare phenomenon' as a pattern of irrationality which will carry on recurring unless we can learn to recognise it for what it is - and to develop the kind of hard-headed scepticism which might give us greater immunity to it. Because, if there is one lesson above all which might be learned from all the examples we analyse, it is that our ability to fall for 'scares' is doing us all breathtaking damage. In no case more obviously than global warming.

Contents © London Book Review 2008. Published March 17 2008