05/11/2012

James Delingpole - not very good

A few weeks ago, I joined the Blocked by James Delingpole club on Twitter. It's not a very select club, it must be said. The criteria for entry seems to be disagreeing with him, whether or not you use the sort of colourful language I did. You can even get in if your name's not down and you're wearing jeans and trainers.

Delingpole is one of those professional Gumbys that are employed because they represent a point of view that people in the media feel needs to be expressed by someone, even if it's an idiot in wellies and a knotted hanky standing in a field expressing it in a stupid voice.

Delingpole's pet subject is climate change, which he is sceptical of. On climate change he's not worth paying any more attention to than a flat-earther or a young earth creationist or one of those guys who think Larry Hagman is a cyborg from the future sent to bring about zombie armageddon from infected pizza. I'm sure that if it really did emerge that climate change was not happening or was definitely not caused by humans, we'd find out from someone a lot better with reason and evidence than this guy.

Recently though, I found out he talks about more than the one subject he's most famous for. I got myself blocked by him on twitter for wading into an exchange between him and Robin Ince and pointing out he was wrong to say there was only one possible interpretation of something Ince had said. That led to my discovery of Delingpole's Spectator blog, which led me to tweet:
James Delingpole's articles are great aren't they? Like case study examples for a list of logical fallacies.
 So, let's have a look at his latest column. I've picked the latest because I like to be cutting edge on the blog I don't update for months on end.

"Why on earth do we think badgers are charismatic?" is about badgers. It opens:
Did you know that the badger is one of the most charismatic creatures in our countryside? It says so on an advisory leaflet produced by Scottish Natural Heritage called ‘Badgers And The Law’.
This is cherrypicking. Delingpole has chosen to base his article on one sentence from one leaflet he tells us nothing more about. This leaves things open to lying by omission.

It's also plain old wrong. The line about badgers being charismatic comes from a leaflet produced by the Scottish Executive and The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime called 'Badgers and the Law in Scotland'. (Remember the 'in Scotland' bit I emphasised there. It's important). Scottish Natural Heritage does have a section on its website titled 'Badgers and the Law' but it doesn't include the 'charismatic' line, instead calling badgers 'popular and familiar' in an earlier section.*

This opening gambit is followed by two paragraphs of straw men and reductio ad absurdum, in which he creates poor jokes from several ridiculous reasons for why someone might describe badgers as 'charismatic' instead of the most likely, which is that they were thinking along the lines of the Wikipedia definition, "compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others".

This is all done to create a great big ad hominem, in which we're invited to dismiss the idea of badgers being charismatic because of several pretend qualities of the person who said they were that are entirely speculative and made up.

Having devoted three paragraphs to proving that anyone who thinks badgers are charismatic are stupidy-stupids, he goes on to say:
Look, for the record — and more importantly, for the benefit of any homicidal animal rights nutcases reading this — I too like badgers. But I also like hedgehogs, lapwings, dairy cattle and human beings. And I really can’t see why, just because Mr Brock has got an engaging stripy face and a poodle-haired guitarist from a high-camp 1970s rock band really rates him, he deserves special protection rights which trump those of all his competitors in the ecosystem.
This is where the cherrypicking pays off with some nice lying by omission. The leaflet very clearly explains why there are laws that protect badgers, since it's entirely about laws to prevent badger-baiting. This explanation comes in the sentence immediately following the one Delingpole quotes. It's very clear, but he completely leaves it out and gives us an argument from personal incredulity instead.

It's not even as if badgers are that unusual in having laws to protect them against cruel sports (see laws to prevent harming other animals by bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog fighting, cock fighting, hare coursing, hunting with dogs and so on).

Then, Delingpole gets his earlier cherrypicking to pay off again:
One of the more dangerous misconceptions of the environmental movement is the notion — plucked from the ether by influential ecologists such as Howard T. and Eugene Odum, and based on no evidence whatsoever — that the natural world is a stable system. Freed from man’s unwelcome intrusion, the theory goes, nature will return to a state of perfect balance. 
This is a bait and switch. The leaflet the article has been about up until now has nothing to do with this theory, and doesn't mention it once. By quickly shifting the subject without warning, Delingpole has made it look as though there's a leaflet about laws protecting badgers because of a theory about the natural world being a stable system. Instead, there's a leaflet about laws protecting badgers that exist to prevent a cruel sport that harms and kills them.

This bait and switch is followed quickly by another, bigger one:
You only have to look at the current badger problem to realise this is nonsense. Apart from the Ford Mondeo the badger has no natural predator, so since in the early 1980s legislation made it illegal to kill badgers, their population has rocketed to unsustainable levels. The consequences have been disastrous: TB in both badgers and cattle has soared; hedgehog and ground-nesting bird populations have been devastated; farmers’ livelihoods have been destroyed; vast sums of taxpayers’ money — the figure last year was £100 million — have been squandered; and Britain is now at risk of having an EU ban on all its beef and dairy exports, at a cost to the economy of more than £2 billion a year.
This paragraph does a lot of work.

For a start, he's switched to moving toward the discussion of badger culling, as if the opposition to it is based on the idea that badgers are charismatic, taken from a leaflet that has nothing to do with badger culling at all - and the idea that humans shouldn't interfere with the environment, which he chucked in apropos of nothing in such a way that could make it look as though it came from the same leaflet.

It's also quite possibly another lie by omission.  The laws to protect badgers (actually from 1973 and updated in 1992) include exemptions for anyone killing a badger "if he shows that his action was necessary for the purpose of preventing serious damage to land, crops, poultry or any other form of property." It also allows for the granting of licences to kill badgers to prevent the spread of disease.** We simply do not have laws based on the idea that humans should not interfere with their environment.

Finally for this paragraph, we have the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy - saying that because something happened after something else, the thing that came first must have caused the thing that came second.

This is what makes it my favourite bit of the article. If you want to disprove the idea that laws against killing badgers described in the leaflet Delingpole quotes have led to the crisis in bovine TB, all you'd have to do is find a place with the same laws that is TB free.

You won't have to look very far. The leaflet is from Scotland. Scotland has been declared TB free. That's why the proposed cull would only deal with England. In a desire to find the best quote to cherrypick to make his opposition look stupidy-stupid, Delingpole has chosen a leaflet that goes a long way toward destroying his own argument. That's just lovely.

The next couple of paragraphs address the science behind the arguments for and against a badger cull, and they're extraordinary in that they do it by not quoting the science or linking to it at all, bar one single cherrypicked unclear and unsourced statistic.

All we have is an argument from authority (the Evironment Secretary knows what he's on about because he's tabled over 600 questions on the subject) mixed with a bunch of ad-hominems (the opposition to the bans are a 'ragbag of bleeding-heart celebs, eco-terrorists, opportunist politicians, left-liberal media outfits and activist scientists') and arguing from personal incredulity. Without a hint of irony or self awareness, he actually says:
Sure, they’ve managed to come up with any number of superficially plausible ‘scientific’ reasons as to why culls don’t work. But as we’ve seen with ‘climate change’, if you’ve decided in advance what your conclusion is, it’s amazing how easy it is to manipulate the ‘evidence’ into saying whatever it is you’d like it to say.
The real reason for opposition is ideological. The proof is because Delingpole says so, mainly backed up by evidence taken from a leaflet outlining laws against mistreating badgers from a place where nobody's said a badger cull is necessary because it's officially TB free. Well done, sir.

Then:
Once, in the days before Christianity was replaced by Gaia-worship, we instinctively understood that the natural world was man’s dominion.
This and what follows is an appeal to tradition (the only reason offered for why 'the days before Gaia worship' might be better is that we used to do it) and, well, fantasy (our official state religion is a particular branch of protestant Christianity) - peppered with ad-hominems ('bunny huggers') and straw men ('why should the life of a badger be considered any less valuable and meaningful than that of a dairy farmer?') but essentially it's another great big bait and switch

Up until now, he's been talking about a particular human intervention into the environment. Now, he starts talking about them in general. It's quite possible to believe that some interference in the environment is acceptable or even desirable without believing that culling badgers is the best thing to do to prevent bovine TB. So not only is this a bait and switch, it's also a straw man.

Perhaps most fittingly, the conclusion is this:
I’ve little doubt that, given the opportunity, Mr Brock would most heartily agree with me. ‘Give me a nice peaceful death, humanely gassed in my sett, any day, than a slow, painful demise, shivering and emaciated from tuberculosis.’ Unfortunately, though, I can’t prove this because unlike the charismatic, waistcoat-wearing, stripy-faced fellow in Brian May’s imagination, Mr Brock isn’t an honorary human. He’s just a badger.
Of course, Mister Brock isn't 'just a badger', he's a fictional personification of one. So Delingpole finishes an article that opens by pointing out how stupid it is to personify animals and give them the qualities you'd like them to have in order to decide what to do in a crisis by personifying an animal and giving it the qualities he'd like it to have in order to decide what to do in a crisis, using an imaginary quote he made up himself.

This kind of stuff...it's really very bad. It surely doesn't deserve publication, unless of course you're publishing something designed to reinforce prejudices rather than actually examine issues with any sort of intellectual honesty.

Perhaps we give these professional Gumbys' opinions too much credence by arguing against them, guaranteeing their continued employment. But we have to keep exposing them as not very clever or good at making proper arguments. You know why? Toby Young runs a school

Imagine what might happen if there weren't people to point and laugh.

What we'd get is this, on a bigger scale.

*This could be deliberate. The omission of the 'in Scotland' draws attention away from the fact that we're talking about a leaflet covering laws that apply to somewhere that is bovine TB free. 'Scottish Natural Heritage' also sounds much more wishy-washy and environmentalist than 'The Scottish Executive'. Of course, it could also be a mistake. With Delingpole that possibility is never far away.

**Of course, there's always the possibility that this isn't a lie because Delingpole has never bothered to look at the legislation he's arguing against, or misunderstood it when he did. With Delingpole that possibility is never far away.


7 comments:

A_Welshman said...

Good read.

FLG said...

Excellent. Science without data isn't science.

Bob said...

Sorry 5cc you have committed the cardinal sin of actually reading one of Delingpole's blogs. I did the same a few weeks ago, left a comment asking where he got his evidence from and got a sarcastic reply from the man himself. He then deleted my comment.

Delingpole is a wanker of the 1st degree! Thanks for taking the time to call him out.

Are you aware he pulled out of the Corby By-election as the anti windfarm candidate?

http://www.newstatesman.com/sci-tech/2012/10/anti-wind-farm-candidate-james-delingpole-pulls-out-corby-election-town-continues-h

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Bob - Not only did I read it - I decided to take it seriously too. A lose double.

I did see that he'd pulled out of Corby, thanks to Zelo Street but I hadn't seen that in the NS so thanks for that and the nice words.

And thanks to everyone else too.

carinaemajoris said...

Can I add my name to the list of people who James Delingpole has blocked. The reason: I provided evidence which showed he misrepresented and misunderstood the "no heating since 1998" claim. He was right. But, he said it in 2007. An unusually low temperature year. 1998 was also an unusually hot year. But since 1992 and 2007, there was a general trend of warming. And since 1980 and 1880. He selected the data to fit his pre-defined conclusion. He never replied, and blocked me. VICTORY! :D

@curranhung said...

I'm a bit upset that he didn't block me after I suggested that he was wrong when he wrote "The Chinese don't believe for one second in the climate change myth". He replied to my objection with, "No, Margaret, I think it's just you who believes in it. And on what evidence I'm not really sure."

So there you have it - only one Chinese person believes in climate change and it's me!

uknowispeaksense said...

Just stumbled on this blog entry and I am extremely glad I did. While at first it seem a bit silly to be attacking the idiot's post about badgers, what you have done is highlight every step of the MO he employs for every article he writes. It almost reads like a recipe. Delingpole is a snake and what you have done is provide a tutorial on how to bust his nonsense wide open. Well done.