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December 06, 2007

Richard D. North argues that (Christopher Booker and) Richard North are strikingly wrong in their latest book: Scared To Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why scares are costing us the Earth - Christopher Booker and Richard North

Posted by Richard D. North

Scared To Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why scares are costing us the Earth
by Christopher Booker and Richard North
London: Continuum, 2007
Hardback, 16.99

Christopher Booker and Richard North are much admired on the Europhobic right of politics. Their work for the Sunday Telegraph and in previous books obsesses on scandalous over-regulation by the EU, especially as it applies to beleaguered small businesses. Curiously, you might think, their work is often admired by small organic and free-range farmers and food producers, many of whom are more normally to be found buried in the Observer. But campaigners always do make strange bedfellows. (Elsewhere, I explain that I am not Christopher Booker's Richard North, and have rather different prejudices from the one who is.)

It is probably best to take the Booker/North teamwork on its face value. That's to say that they equally research and write most of the stories they cover. It is certainly quite probable that they think as one as to the analysis of the problems which underlie their causes. However, it remains worth noting that Richard North has been highly active as a bonny fighter on the ground and especially in cases involving food scares, so that part of their case may belong more to him.

This book makes an enormous claim:

In the past twenty years, Western society in general and Britain in particular has been in the grip of a remarkable and very dangerous psychological phenomenon.
We are prey, they say, to a succession of scares characterised by "great fear" coming from a "mysterious new threat to human health".

Our authors are at one with some trenchant and diverse voices. This is, after all, the main battle cry of Frank Furedi, Mick Hume, Claire Fox and the rest of the spiked-online and Institute of Ideas crew (late of the Revolutionary Communist Party and Living Marxism). It is also the main assertion of Benny Peiser, whose CCNet is the single most important source of intelligent climate change scepticism we have.

Their case seems strikingly wrong in important respects.

Let's look at the food scares of the 1980s and 1990s. If you recall, there was salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese, E Coli in pies and BSE in cows. It was a ceaseless procession of stories which went a long way (with train crashes) to produce a feeling in some commentators that we were living in a Third World country (as the late Peter Jenkins put it in The Independent).

There was a powerful crew who made a profession of amplifying them. Egged on by the media's health correspondents and the Labour opposition, Professors Richard Lacey and Tim Lang (initially funded by Ken Livingstone's London government) were foremost. Lacey was always on hand to paint extreme scenarios in which it seemed more likely than not that thousands or millions would be made ill or die. Tim Lang, then as now, was an operator of quite awesome smoothness who was ever ready with a new administrative or regulatory reform which government needed to introduce. All that is rather well told in this book. According to Booker/North's evidence, almost every aspect of these sagas was badly over-dramatised.

The most remarkable point, however, is that on Booker/North's own evidence, the British public only renounced any of the suspect products for a very short time. And I mean days and weeks, rather than months. This, surely, totally wrecks the USP of the book? No, we are not scared to death. It's true, as Booker/North say, that government introduced some cruelly punitive and fussy overregulation of nearly every aspect of the food chain. But even here our authors are in a little difficulty. In case after case they show that it was British politicians and officialdom which reached for regulation: our masters were ahead of the EU's demands, or "gold-plated" EU requirements.

So one could argue that there is an important disconnect between the media and political class and the mood of the public. Following that thought, we might usefully argue that government should listen much less to the febrile voices which megaphone at it. It should be especially cautious when sailing into the policy Bermuda Triangle that can be produced when journalists, campaigners and lawyers are baying in unison.

In fact, contrary to deserving blame, "The Mad Officials" (as Booker/North dubbed them in an earlier work), often deserve a deal of sympathy. In most of the food scares we've had, official scientists (vets, epidemiologists, micro-biologists) were having to react to events which were moving at lightning speed and often barging into territory where there was very little previous experience.

Hanging over this book there is a sense that "official" science is always wrong. But that's about as batty as saying that it is always right. As they responded to the best scientific advice they could lay their hands on, and advised politicians, and as politicians demanded action, bureaucrats sometimes responded with measures (perhaps especially closures of businesses and culls of animals) which didn't make much or any sense. But it is worth recalling that the atmosphere in each case was fantastically febrile and even desperate and it's hardly surprising that stupid and even tragic things happened. All power to North's elbow as he batted for the victims. But that doesn't licence what looks like a paranoid anti-establishmentarianism.

In one case, and it is the biggest and most important, Booker/North seem to be more wrong than ever in much of what they say. They may be right in their belief that the long-term existence of BSE in animals and the mid-90s emergence of vCJD in humans may not be connected. But most experts seem to think that such a connection, though unproved, is the likeliest explanation.

Even allowing that the "consensus" may be barking up the wrong tree as to causation, I can't see that anyone behaved very badly in the Mad Cow tragedy. In that, I am with the multi-million pound Phillips report, which Booker/North think was a "sadly banal little mouse". Yes, I agree with Booker/North that John Gummer shouldn't have tried to feed a hamburger to his daughter, and that in general it is wrong for ministers to reassure the public about anything - but we ought to remember that everyone takes ministerial reassurances with a huge pinch of salt so it's not clear how much damage they can really do. Anyway, the point here is that Booker/North aren't generous to their targets, or even logical about them. They don't acknowledge when the "enemy" are right, even if it's by mistake.

This produces the apparent oddity (and they admit it is one) that the authors are happy to assume the organophosphate sheep-dips have probably done terrible harm. They erect a case to say that this one case was different, but it seems pretty thin. It is true that their anti-OP cause was led by attractive figures such as the Countess of Mar, but that doesn't make it right.

I am inclined to think that Booker/North demonise the mainstream and the bureaucratic and worship the marginal and small-scale. They hate the suited and urban and love the welly-booted and rural. So beef farmers are alright when they say their beef is alright in spite of BSE and sheep dippers are alright when they say they've been wounded by OPs, in spite of conflicted evidence on the point. Our authors turn their scepticism filter on and off according to who happens to be in range.

They are steadfast in one loathing. Provided the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), now superseded by Defra, is in the frame, Booker/North feel free to line up with any players and dance with any evidence to bring the big beast down.

There are even more important oddities. Towards the end of the book there is a big section on climate change. This is included presumably on the grounds that it is another giant scare. But in almost every respect climate change doesn't fit their bill or make their case.

True, there are elements of a fake consensus in the UN's IPCC process, at least as to any of the details which matter. But the public seems resolutely immune to any sense of panic on the matter. Politicians have introduced some policy which it is easy to criticise (such as supporting wind farms, as Booker/North note). However, it is possible to argue that beyond some absurd rhetorical flourishes about saving the planet, the political response has not been wildly disproportionate or inappropriate to the political realities of the problem.

Posterity may accuse our current leaders of under-reacting or of over-reacting. What's more, it is hard to argue that a cool reading of the science, such as it is, would make one exactly relaxed about climate change. Booker/North support the view that it's all the fault of the cyclical changes in the behaviour of the sun. But the sun's role is hotly and honestly debated within and without the IPCC consensus and doesn't look likely to be much bigger than the consensus already concedes.

This is not a book one could pick up for a decent assessment of such matters. In one fascinating section there is an important and rare account of the science and politics which lay behind the campaign to get lead out of petrol. The background is that doing so probably made little difference to anyone's health and did increase the carbon footprint of vehicles. True. But the authors completely ignore an important argument one heard at the time: that catalytic converters are a good way of cleaning up vehicle exhaust emissions, and they depend on lead-free petrol.

It happens that there was a further, unpopular, argument that neither lead-free nor catalysts were the cleverest way of cleaning up petrol vehicles, and that lean-burn would have done better. Who knows? But to condemn lead-free without these nuances is next to useless.

Scared To Death would have been far better if it had been drier, more academic and wider-ranging. We could badly do with an anatomy of scares. Instead, the issues Richard North was involved in are dealt with at too great length and some other areas (speed cameras, for instance) get some but scant treatment, and others (the Camelford water poisoning amongst many) get none at all. Where's Chernobyl or Foot and Mouth?

So this isn't exactly a bad book and it has its merits. But one has to know a lot about its subjects to be able to detect its weaknesses - which is a pity in a work which might have been very useful to someone trying to understand these matters from scratch.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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The first question I put to anyone who talks to me about the forthcoming climate disaster is "Have you, personally, ever examined any of the original data on which the main conclusions of the so-called consensus are said to be based?" I refer to the numerical data, not the graphs which seem to be the main diet of those who pronounce knowledgeably on these matters. If you have not PERSONALLY collected the available numerical data sets your comments are based on "hearsay".

I have looked at very large numbers of data sets of many types, including those used by Mann to produce his famous "hockey stick" plot that has enthralled politicians and journalists ever since it appeared. I can tell you with certainty that it is complete rubbish. There is no hockey stick. If you want details contact me.

Have you ever looked at any current data from highly reputable organisations that deal with climatology? Again I mean data, not their graphics. If not, you should. It will give you something solid on which to base criticism of people like Booker and North.

There is no argument that climate warming has occurred over the last 150 years. But demonstrating that this has been caused by anthropological activity is quite impossible. Projecting 50 or 90 years into the future using models that seem to have been based on a requirement to match the "hockey stick" by tweaking some of their adjustable parameters is clearly nonsense. Let the climate modellers produce a satisfactory match to the past 100 years, with its local step changes, steady periods and temperature decreases and I shall begin to think that they are working in the real world.

Posted by: Robin Edwards at December 16, 2007 04:04 PM

The book's title is surely not its USP and although peopled carried on eating Curried eggs, many businesses and many hens died as a result of that particular nonsense.
It seems to me that your reading of the book has largely missed its point. It is not arguing the science so much as recording the processes which have been used to arrive at orthodoxies - particularly on global warming - which have questionable scientific validity but which it is impossible to question at the time without personal vilification and ostracism. Proponents of the Human Caused Climate Change theory have even called for a Nuremberg Trials equivalent for anyone who dares question this orthodoxy. If it turns out that their theory was a load of bunkum, I wonder if they will submit themselves to forensic examination for the damage they have caused.
Although they public is "resolutely immune to any sense of panic on the matter" the politicians and single-issue campaigners are not and I have heard recently of proposals to reduce our CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. it is hard to imagine how we would do that. If we were to succeed and it then turned out that it made no difference whose heads would roll?
The real thesis of the book is that, having become a predominantly secular society, having replaced the religious world view of good and evil first with the Cold War, we now a replacement for that and we are finding it in these scares.

Posted by: James Cope at February 24, 2008 10:47 PM
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