Listen to the NGOs (and documentary makers), not the scientists!

For listening to the politicians, see here. I’ve had an interest in “documentary fiction” for some years, and the subject even found its way into my book God’s Good Earth, primarily from the angle of “Nature porn” portraying God’s world anthropomorphically as a tragic drama. Unfortunately David Attenborough features heavily in my critique, firstly because he does it a lot, secondly because he is hugely influential through the technical quality of his stuff, and thirdly because as a degreed zoologist he ought to do better.

I wrote about the deliberately misleading use of walruses as a victim of climate change here. But whilst researching the walrus story I discovered the equally fraudulent use of starving polar bears as icons of climate destruction in earlier news campaigns. I had absorbed the “threatened polar bears” idea culturally from frequent mentions and photographs in the press, without ever knowing that the iconic film and photos had been deliberately deceptive, and that the story was later retracted by the National Geographic, which first used it. Polar bear numbers are actually increasing, and are at higher levels now than at any time since unregulated hunting was banned.

However, one retraction seldom outweighs the coverage of the “crisis,” not least because the media continues to use the stories and the photos even after the retraction. However, once aware of it, I began to notice minor press reports of tourists being eaten by bears, or of packs of bears threatening Inuit or Siberian communities that are forbidden to shoot them, because of hunting quotas imposed on the basis of predicted extinction from global warming. Of course, these stories in the press were never linked to increasing bear populations.

It is the myth, not the truth, that is relied upon by tourists, and imposed by law on Inuit people. But that has severe impacts on real people, such as the small matter of getting eaten. Indeed, the key to the walrus deaths in the Attenborough film was just such a pack of twenty or so polar bears in Siberia – but to tell the truth about that would have damaged the image of two climate-threatened icons at once, so nobody has ever fully owned up, though the facts are irrefutable.

Around the time the Netflix “walrus” documentary was screened, the BBC’s Attenborough “special,” specifically on climate change, was too. It gave the rather transparent example (to anyone reflecting for a moment) of an orang utan resisting the efforts of loggers in Indonesia to destroy the rain forest and plant sterile palm-oil plantations. What was not mentioned was that although environmentalists like to blame cookie manufacturers, palm oil production has only taken off on a massive scale because of campaigning for biofuels, instead of evil fossil fuels, by environmental NGOs.

All these stories are examples of the “noble lie,” a concept which originated in Plato’s Republic, which I’ve read (twice), but which only came to my consciouness via an excellent book about the progressivist bias of the once-virgin-pure BBC by ex-staffer Robin Aitken, entitled The Noble Liar. As far as science documentaries go, we appear to be living in the most noble culture that has ever existed. To those who produce, or sponsor, those documentaries, the spectre of climate change in the future appears to make it justificable to lie about the issues as they are now. It’s not clear whether David Attenborough is fully complicit in this, or whether he just believes his advisers.

However, mentally, and maybe in blogs, I’ve wanted to give Attenborough his due for raising some genuine issues too, amongst the apocalyptic fictions. Foremost amongst them was his attitude-changing Blue Planet episode on plastic waste. This, I said at the time, was not about speculative projections of future doom, but an actual and serious pollution problem, as the film of masses of bags and bottles floating in the Pacific, and of entangled turtles, proved.

The role of microplastics seemed especially important to me, given reports I heard of fish larvae ingesting microbeads and failing to develop. And it’s all because of toothpaste and skin-care manufacturers seeking profits, I thought (because the news articles told me so).

I have regaled my friends for the last year or two about the microplastics in “biodegradeable” teabags, which Brooke-Bond claimed “break down to tiny particles in the soil.” But tiny particles are still plastic. “What about developing earthworms?” I told our church caterers and my longsuffering wife. “Would they not be likely to suffer the same fate as fish, to the detriment of the whole ecology of the soil?”

Well – now I find that even the plastic story is, in the form we hear it represented, yet another noble lie originated as a marketing campaign by groups like Greenpeace. The masses of bags and bottles supposedly filmed in the Pacific gyre were, it turns out, in Mumbai harbour. India is one of a number of developing countries where poor waste management fills the waterways with packaging and (more seriously) allows rubbish to escape to the seas, where currents tend to concentrate it in certain areas. To give a global perspective on this, Asia is responsible for 86% of it (half being Communist China’s waste) and the whole of Europe only 0.28%. (For you Americans, Central and North America produce less than 1%, most being from Central America, again because of poor waste management).

But the impression (which I did not see reason to question at the time) of floating islands of plastic rubbish the size of Texas, and marine plastic waste outweighing the living organisms, turn out to be sheer lies, whether noble or not. As a genuine scientist wrote (back in 2016 – but who remembers her when Attenborough movies are rescreened all the time?):

The use of the phrase ‘garbage patch’ is misleading. I’d go as far as to say that it is a myth and a misconception. […] It is not visible from space; there are no islands of trash; it is more akin to a diffuse soup of plastic floating in our oceans. […] Yes, there is plastic in the ocean. Peer-reviewed papers suggest that the highest concentration of microplastic is around three pieces of plastic the size of a pencil eraser in a cubic meter. […] The continued use of verbage such as ‘plastic islands’, ’twice the size of Texas’, is pure hyperbole that I personally believe undermines the credibility of those that should be focused on helping reduce the source stream of marine debris to our oceans. – Prof. Angelicque (“Angel”) White, interviewed by The Telegraph, October 5, 2016

In other words, even in the worst hot-spots we’re talking about a hundred or so fragments the size of your fingernail in a cubic mile of ocean – and that is ten times the general ocean surface concentration. Now that’s certainly littering on a massive scale, but real scientists see its potential dangers as a question to investigate, not as yet another doomsday scenario requiring panic measures.

Certainly, turtles choked by poly-bags disguised as jellyfish, or dolphins or gannets entangled in fishing line, are a bad thing. But, given how we have been misled by popular campaigners, it would be nice to see some robust data on the actual prevalence of such mishaps. It’s also worth reflecting coolly on reports, like one on the BBC recently in which it was said, gloomily, that the kind of plastic fragments found in the gut of fish are also found in the gut of the marine predators that eat them whole. But plastic’s main virtue is that it is inert: if your gut contains plastic and I eat you whole, so what? You will do me no harm provided (as will certainly happen) the plastic passes out at the other end with your bones.

Meanwhile, the feverish campaigns to ban “single-use plastics,” with paper straws in Starbucks and lethal  metal ones at children’s parties, and so on, not only target the wrong countries, but (as is only now emerging) usually use more materials and energy, and generate more CO2 than the problem-items do. I’m increasingly realising that both the way environmental groups present issues, and the solutions insisted upon by the governments that listen to them, are all gloss and froth. They’re about image, not about reality. But that’s what a noble lie is, isn’t it? Nobody would believe it if it weren’t simple and dramatic.

Still, what about those microbeads from your toothpaste or exfoliant poisoning young fish? I’ve not checked out the entire literature on this (and which of us has time to do that on every issue?). But I’m pretty sure my “microplastics bad” consciousness came, originally, from a much-publicised study in Nature, splashed across the news media, which was much-less publically retracted 10 months later as a major scientific fraud. The story is here.

Note the quote in that piece:

The “profound” conclusions were reported by many outlets around the world.

Or as Jonathan Swift said back in 1710:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.

Note also that nothing in the paper itself would have enabled scientists to discover the fraud – the exposée only happened because some scientists familiar with the local circumstances found reason to disbelieve the research had actually been done. So even science may not be immune from noble lies, since it depends on trust within the community. Cash- and kudos- orientated grants committees aren’t interested in replicating old studies, and NGOs are very interested in exaggerating them to the press and to governments.

The motives of the researcher remain unclear – she has retired from science as well as public comment. But her University, James Cook in Australia, is at the forefront of environmental activism. It would be easy to conclude that she felt her paper would help the cause more than some more lengthy and probably inconclusive research.

Our own Sy Garte wrote an excellent book (now out of print, sadly), called Where We Stand. It was basically an antidote to the idea that the world is going to hell in a handcart, showing how many major problems are being, or have been, quietly solved by experts conferring with politicians, businesses and interested parties to solve problems. These include many major health, environmental, and economic issues, many of which we still wrongly consider insoluble because there are activist groups, with a strong media presence, who prefer to engender a permanent sense of crisis than to assess problems accurately and work quietly at sound solutions. A brilliant presentation demythologizing some of these things is here.

The noble lie is harmful on all kind of levels. As I’ve indicated above with a number of examples, it exaggerates the problems and encourages solutions that are wasteful, ineffective and even counterproductive or harmful. The world’s problems with plastic pollution can be solved relatively easily – but not if they are grossly exaggerated and unrealistic solutions are insisted upon by the movers and shakers.

Once the noble lie is accepted as a valid strategy it also makes the whole of life a matter of the power of persuasion, rather than of truth. I’ve done some study of propaganda (eg here), using sources concerned that we should know its principles for the sake of truth and freedom. More chilling is the first major book on the subject, which I need more courage to read than I currently possess, Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1928). Here the principles are first taught, Machiavellian-style, to give faceless rulers better tools to control us:

Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays is happy to assist that situation. Bear in mind that he was anticipating, not merely recording, what Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao put fully into practice, All these used the noble lie to bring about the socialist utopia or the 1000 year Reich, as the case might be. But most of the lies were not about the utopia, but about other things deemed necessary to get to that final good: announcing booming industrial and agricultural production (when there was stasis or famine), demonstrating the evils of the Church, or the parasitism of the Jews, or the malice of the Kulaks; and in Hitler’s case particularly, the importance of preserving the environment (see Rupert Darwall, Green Tyranny). Bernays could have had no idea that western governments and NGOs would also get the idea and turn the whole world into a propaganda battleground, with the foot-soldiers mainly unaware they are even in a war, merely drifting with the winds of lies like … plankton in a plastic soup.

One might argue that telling a few porkies to motivate the general populace to care for the planet better is a good thing, even at the risk of damaging the world economy, causing mass-starvation through fuel poverty, and so on. But the trouble with lies is that you have can never have any real idea of where they stop. What if, as a good number of skeptical folk conclude, even “Save the Planet” is a noble lie covering a desire to change the world political order for some greater good? How would one know the real agenda? As Saikat Chakrabarti recently said of the Green New Deal he helped to formulate:

The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.

Additionally, of course, noble-sounding lies can cover more venal motives even than running the world according to some invisible élite’s ideals. In 1984 Winston Smith’s idea that his torture is the result of his oppressors’ perverted, but genuine, desire to save the world is quashed when his torturer admits it’s all about power.

The thing is that lies have an inexorable tendency to corrupt nobility. They put the stench of corruption on God’s good earth, even as they claim to save its life.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Listen to the NGOs (and documentary makers), not the scientists!

  1. Ben says:

    I think they overreached with the plastic straws thing. Especially here in Switzerland of all places. Hyper-clean, people meticulously sorting their waste for recycling, and land-locked. Even middle-of-the-road not-thinking-about-it-much people have difficulty believing they end up in whales.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Even middle-of-the-road not-thinking-about-it-much people have difficulty believing they end up in whales.

      No doubt they end up in marmots, too! And we have to consider ferries getting stranded in the mass of floating plastic between Lausanne and Vevey…

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