Piers Akerman channels Sir John Houghton

In left-wing plot circles a clincher lately has been this Machiavellian utterance by former IPCC head Sir John Houghton.

Piers Akerman:

This alarmist approach reeked of stupidity, snake oil, and misguided gospel preaching but was in line with a formula adopted by the first chairman of the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, who… wrote in his book Global Warming, The Complete Briefing, in 1994: "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen.”

— The Sunday Telegraph, 5th November, 2006

In The Observer, Sunday 14 February 2010, Sir John Houghton writes:

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, writing about my work as the chair of the first IPCC Scientific Assessment , quotes me as saying: "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen," thereby attributing to me and the IPCC an attitude of hype and exaggeration. That quote from me is without foundation. I have never said it or written it.

Although it has spread on the internet, I do not know its origin. In fact I have frequently argued the opposite, namely that those who make such statements are not only wrong but counterproductive. This quote is doing damage not only to me as a responsible scientist but also to the IPCC which in its main conclusions has always worked to avoid exaggeration. I demand from Dr Peiser an apology that he failed to check his sources and a public retraction of the use he made of the fabricated quotation.

Sir John Houghton

Last night the origin of Sir John Houghton’s statement was revealed: according to Media Watch it is none other than Piers Akerman. It appears the "quote" originated in Akerman’s 2006 op-ed piece.

Honest as…

See my 2007 post Miranda asks a question or two on climate change for more from Sir John.

…That is in Miranda’s damp squib defence of “The Great Global Warming Swindle, a science-backed [sic] rebuttal of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.” I’ll let notoriously non-Marxist Christian Sir John Houghton, a top meteorologist and former Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Oxford University, reply…

Sir John Houghton: briefing on climate change (PDF) 2007 — opens in same window — 3 meg. Read the real Sir John and decide for yourself if the travesty being quoted by skeptics is at all likely.

But of course the real Sir John is a left-wing liar…: (irony, folks)

I noticed today (17 Feb) that I had been linked to:

… Today, everyone seems to agree that it is immoral to lie about disasters. So Sir John Houghton vehemently denies that he has ever said anything like this. In fact, he claims that he has always warned against exaggerations. The Independent writes:

In fact, his view on the matter of generating scare stories to publicise climate change is quite the opposite. "There are those who will say ‘unless we announce disasters, no one will listen’, but I’m not one of them," Sir John told The Independent.

"It’s not the sort of thing I would ever say. It’s quite the opposite of what I think and it pains me to see this quote being used repeatedly in this way. I would never say we should hype up the risk of climate disasters in order to get noticed," he said.

This proclamation has been parroted by dozens of left-wing blogs such as Deltoid, Island of Doubt, Climate Emergency News, She Wonk, Neil’s Second Decade, Sott.net, Exile on Moan Street, Mark Pack, The Legend of Pine Ridge, and many others. Oh, he’s so honest, isn’t he? All of these blogs fabricate incredible conspiracy theories "explaining" which skeptics have actually created the story and associated it with the "innocent" Sir John Houghton.

The writer goes on to "prove" Houghton is lying because he did say on September 10th, 1995: "If we want a good environmental policy in the future, we’ll have to have a disaster."

OK, accepted, but is it really the same? I would not disagree with Sir John on this one, I’m afraid, but any fair reading of that quote, even devoid of context and fifteen years old as it is, can see it isn’t the same as conspiring to talk up disasters in order to sex up climate science. Perhaps what he really meant at the time is that no-one really wanted to know about this stuff and they’d have to be covered in lava before they would admit the volcano might be dangerous. I can understand that.

I’m afraid "lumo", the blogger who thinks I am some kind of socialist, is reading into Sir John’s 1995 statement what he wished Sir John had said. Sadly, it isn’t what Sir John meant — or at least I am 90% sure that’s not what Sir John meant. 90% sure is pretty impressive usually, but not to everyone of course…

My field of expertise is English language. From that perspective morphing "If we want a good environmental policy in the future, we’ll have to have a disaster" into "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen" is quite a clear distortion.

Take a small grammar lesson on conditionals. Sir John’s original statement could be rephrased “If we had a disaster – Tuvalu finally disappearing beneath the waves at every high tide for example – then policy makers would more likely than not take notice and implement better policy.”  In both the change depends on something actually happening in the natural world. While Sir John’s sentence has the form of what some grammarians call the First Conditional it is actually a hypothetical conditional like the last example in the following table.

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True in the Present
If clause Independent clause
True as habit or fact
If + subject + present tense subject + present tense
If Judita works hard, she gets good grades.
True as one-time future event
If + subject + present tense subject + future tense
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow, she’ll probably get an A.
Possibly true in the future
If + subject + present tense subject + modal + base form
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow, she may/might/could/should get an A.

In the distorted version used by Piers Akerman and others  — "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen" — the condition leading to an effect has been rendered negative (“unless” = “if…not”) and the linkage is not hypothetical. Further, the condition, quite unlike Sir John’s sentence, is related to propaganda activity by the IPCC not to real world events. This is a total distortion.

Not to mention that the whole line of argument from skeptics on this one is ad hominem and quite irrelevant to the scientific merit of what Sir John Houghton or the IPCC have to offer.

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One thought on “Piers Akerman channels Sir John Houghton

  1. There’s a sequel: Malice, misquotes and Media Watch by Jonathan Holmes.

    …As everyone knows, cyberspace is full of rubbish. Wrong facts, distortions, special pleadings, misprints, misattributions, and plain lies.

    If journalists like Piers Akerman, well-paid by ‘heritage’ media organisations like News Ltd, are to add value, it’s by doing their best to ensure that what they publish is accurate. It isn’t ‘someone, somewhere in cyberspace’s’ job to ensure that Piers Akerman gets his facts right. It is Akerman’s.

    Of course, what applies to a relatively speedily written column like Akerman’s applies a fortiori to a publication like the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report. Some defenders of the IPCC have complained that too much is being made of a few small errors in a 3,000-page report.

    To my mind, those errors are significant. The global media is quite right to report them, and arguably should have done so sooner.

    But Piers Akerman appears to have been the first serious, mainstream journalist to have attributed the ‘tidied up’ quote to Sir John Houghton – a quote that’s done great damage to the IPCC’s reputation, because it implies that its former Chairman endorsed deliberate hyberbole.

    Mistakes happen. But if Akerman had any regard for his own status, and the craft of journalism, he should front up and admit he got it wrong.

    He hasn’t. Instead he’s accused The Independent, and Media Watch, of malice.

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