Subeditors not at work

by Chris Bertram on January 16, 2006

“Mad” Melanie Phillips continues to be a source of amusement. Since she’s never slow to lecture her readers on the evils of ganja, I guess it can’t be anything she’s smoking, but last week she treated us all to “a stern lecture”: on the “tree-hugging” scientists behind the global-warming “scam” (as she calls it). It is worth reading right down to the end where the on-line text carries a correction:

bq. The version of this article published in The Daily Mail said in error that water vapour formed most of the atmosphere.

It reminded me a little of “Mr Pooter”: :

bq. I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.

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01.16.06 at 10:34 am



ObtusePedant 01.16.06 at 8:19 am

Speaking of Global Warming, Professor Lovelock has a book coming out – it’s a feel-good tome about life after Global Warming entitled “The revenge of Gaia”.

The Independent has a series yesterday and today – here’s the link, and the opening paragraphs.

The world has already passed the point of no return for climate change, and civilisation as we know it is now unlikely to survive, according to James Lovelock, the scientist and green guru who conceived the idea of Gaia – the Earth which keeps itself fit for life.

In a profoundly pessimistic new assessment, published in today’s Independent, Professor Lovelock suggests that efforts to counter global warming cannot succeed, and that, in effect, it is already too late.


Matt 01.16.06 at 9:07 am

Melanie Phillips obviously has no idea what she is talking about. She is a sad victim of the oil lobby that has spent the last 20 years blowing a smoke screen on this type of science in order to further their own agenda.

Sure climate predictions on this kind of scale is something that science can’t cope with as it is too complex (yet), but the evidence supporting “global warming” is plentiful.

It is nice to have these raving lunatics though, they kind of help out in the long run, so humour the poor woman she could use some kind of support. No idea what though, since ignorance is bliss, after all so she must be a very happy girl indeed.


Chris Bertram 01.16.06 at 9:35 am

I’ve deleted a couple of comments which seem to me to cross an offensiveness/potential libel boundary. Sorry folks.


Matt (not #2 above) 01.16.06 at 10:01 am

But Chris! Those are just the comments I come to see! Maybe you can set up a “premium” version of CT, subscription only, where such comments are avaliable? ;)


rich 01.16.06 at 10:09 am

She’s also wrong about…

“No doubt Galileo had the same problem when all medieval parchments agreed that the sun went round the earth; or Christopher Columbus, when all navigational maps agreed that the earth was flat.”

… since Galileo was born 21 years after Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus was first published (and, in fact, Galileo owned a copy), and the world had been known not to be round for a very long time before Columbus…


Rich Puchalsky 01.16.06 at 10:20 am

There are still people trying to argue about whether evolution occurs.

There are still people trying to argue about whether the Holocaust occured.

And there are always going to be people still arguing about whether anthropogenic global climate change is occuring.

People of good will have various opinions about whether it’s best to deal with them by ignoring them or by trying to address their ever-repeated arguments whenever they appear, but nothing is going to finally convince them.


roger 01.16.06 at 12:00 pm

Somebody has aspersed the character of Mr. Pooter? Does humanity known no lower bound? Disgusting.


Matt McGrattan 01.16.06 at 12:15 pm

The flat earth thing is one of those persistent myths that otherwise well-educated people continue to believe.

Not only did people know the Earth was round they knew it’s circumference to within a couple of % over 1600 years before Columbus was even born.

The average well-educated man of the Renaissance knew massively more about astronomy and navigation than just about any modern non-specialist.

Of course everyone here knows that, but the myth remains persistent.

That someone as ignorant as Melanie Phillips should believe this to be the case is no surprise at all.


des von bladet 01.16.06 at 12:30 pm

The average well-educated man of the Renaissance knew massively more about astronomy […]

In a pig’s arse, friend. He may have known a great deal about constellations and such, but that stopped being “astronomy” a long long time ago. That stars are mostly hydrogen doing nuclear fusion is well-known to contemporary non-specialists (although prolly not Mad Mel), and wasn’t even _stateable_ in the Rebirthning.

In any case, were “well-educated men of the Renaissance” a greater proportion of their contemporary population than physics graduates are today (restricting both to “the West”, to your advantage)? I’d risk a modest wager not, just for a laugh, but I’d be interested to know for surer.


John East 01.16.06 at 12:35 pm

Well I for one love Melanie, but I have to admit that, for all her virtues, when it comes to science she should keep her big mouth shut. I have been forced to e-mail her in the past concerning her ignorance when she tried to mount a statistical defence of Professor Roy Meadow and his one man mission to imprison all mothers who suffered the tradegy of two or more cot deaths.


derek 01.16.06 at 12:42 pm

Melanie Phillips is as ignorant and malign about climatology as she is about drugs and everything else. It’s not that I think she is our country’s Ann Coulter, but I never want to see our country produce something closer to Ann Coulter than Phillips gets.


P O'Neill 01.16.06 at 2:20 pm

Wasn’t Private Eye calling her Scary Spice for a while?


Anthony 01.16.06 at 2:46 pm

This is of course the same Melanie Phillips whose deep understanding of Science leads her to rant against the MMR triple vaccine and even the Theory of Evolution (eg see here:


Brendan 01.16.06 at 2:48 pm

The main difference between Coulter and Phillips is that Coulter sometimes seems (i would stress that word) to have the vague ghost of a sense of humour, whereas you couldn’t get a joke into Phillip’s head with a 2-by-4, although I’d be willing to try.


otto 01.16.06 at 4:57 pm

I can see why the US oil and Israel lobbies are willing to cooperate, where their interests are coincident, viz US domination of the arab/muslim/oil-producing world. That’s the requirement for contingent coalitions among interest groups for you. But why this coincidence of views should show up in opinion columnists who dont need to be coalition with anybody, indeed who have almost total individual independence, I cannot understand.


Brendan 01.16.06 at 5:05 pm

‘But why this coincidence of views should show up in opinion columnists who dont need to be coalition with anybody, indeed who have almost total individual independence, I cannot understand.’

Otto, here’s something that might help you understand. If you can, get hold of Melanie Phillips’ monthly payslip. Then look at yours. Compare and contrast.

Things clearer now?


Ben P 01.16.06 at 7:16 pm

The fact that she thinks that Columbus was “challenging” conventional wisdom in terms of scientific thought suggests that maybe she spend a bit more time reading and a little less time writing.

Virtually every “thinking” person of the time understood and believed the world to be round. The thing about Columbus and his voyage was that he decided to take it because he thought the world was signficantly smaller than it actually was. This is why people thought he was a bit out of left-field. Indeed, his critics were actually right, as Columbus vastly underestimated the size of the world and clung to his belief that he had discovered Asia to his dying day – while others came to believe the reality of what Columbus had actually sailed into – a new continent previously unknown to Europeans.


Robin Green 01.16.06 at 7:41 pm

However, there are some people who don’t need to be paid to spout embarassingly irrational views at length. You don’t necessarily need to look at Phillips’ paycheck to find a cause for her bizarre views. The intellectual (and I use the word advisedly) circles she participates in can explain it. Groupthink, in a word.


mrjauk 01.16.06 at 9:15 pm

Holy &*$%&. I hear this crap all the time when some wingnut alludes to the admittedly contingent nature of scientific knowledge.

Shorter Melanie Phillips: We shouldn’t trust the scientific method because Galileo and Columbus used it to prove that religious views about the natural world were wrong. WTF?!?!


bellatrys 01.16.06 at 11:34 pm

Oh gods, and the conservatives pretend to have the lock on Western Cultureâ„¢ and be the Caretakers of Historyâ„¢ no less.

1) Item. The standard medieval college science text on astronomy, the Almagest of Ptolemy, dating to the late Roman empire, states at the beginning that the earth is spherical, and so small compared to the distance from us to the nearest stars that we might as well be a mathematical point. The possibility that it’s the earth spinning and not the sky rotating is discused in the early pages, but rejected because of a prototypical application of Ockham’s Razor – that’s a) not what we see, and b) common sense indicates that since if you spin a potter’s wheel, stuff on it flies off, and given how large the diameter of the earth is, how much faster it would have to be spinning, if that were so everything on the earth would be spun off into the ether.

2. Item. Nobody, but nobody, was arguing that the earth was flat at the time of Copernicus and Galileo. The argument was over whether or not Ptolemy was wrong, and the heliocentric vs terracentric models of the cosmos.

3. Item. Columbus’ radical “discovery” was to claim that all the other maps in the world were wrong, and he had discovered that the earth’s diameter was a lot shorter than every other scientist since Empedocles had come up with, and so a westward journey round the world to China and India would be much more cheap and feasible than everyone thought. As it happened, he was wrong because he had misread the scale on a foreign map, as wrong as if someone had sold the US govt in the 1930s on a special kind of rocket engine and an expedition to the moon, based on the idea that the moon was a lot closer but just *looked* far away due to refractive atmospheric issues, in the “objects in mirror” principle…

Memo to Melanie – Research. It’s easy, and it doesn’t cost very much, and it’s fun, too!


nick s 01.17.06 at 1:05 am

The flat earth thing is one of those persistent myths that otherwise well-educated people continue to believe.

I blame Washington Irving. And that bloody song. It did earn Alan Davies many lost points on QI some time back, though.

She writes for the Daily Mail now, yes? Where next, one wonders, since she’s done the rounds in a way that’s would make Postman Pat blush.


Matt McGrattan 01.17.06 at 2:18 am


When I said that the average well-educated man of the period knew more about astronomy I meant the kind of practical and observational astronomy that involves things like the names of the stars, the observation of their motions, the practical uses in navigation to which such observations could be put, and so on. That’s why I said ‘astronomy and navigation’.

However, accompanying such knowledge there could also be a highly sophistcated knowledge of the mathematics of spherical geometry, of the uses of stereographic projection, etc. Such knowledge would be employed in star maps and on astrolabes, and so on.

Concerning the spherical nature of the earth this would involve not just the knowledge that it was spherical but also a fairly precise knowledge of the angle at which the earth sits with respect to the plane of the ecliptic.

The fact that such individuals knew nothing of hydrogen fusion and that their cosmology was largely wrong is neither here nor there. My point was just that the ordinary educated man of the period had a considerably more sophisticated knowledge than popular educated myth would have it and that their knowledge of astronomy was just another one of the many things which fed into their knowledge that, contra said myth, the Earth was not flat.

Of course if you want to make obtuse misreadings and interpret ‘astronomy and navigation’ as cosmology and physics, feel free…


Andrew Brown 01.17.06 at 2:56 am

I think that Melanie Phillips’ views on climate change are inexplicable unless you realise that her whole career has beeen built on the supposition that the consensus of respectable experts is always wrong. This is an odd thing for a conservative to believe, but I’m not sure that she thinks of herself as a conservative. In any case, she started off as a leftish policy wonk, convinced that the whitehall consensus was wrong on poverty and family life. Then she went wway to the right about that — but, again, everything was to be explained by the malevolence of the experts. Finally, she reaches the defining position of the post-modernist right, which is that most important aspect of any argument is the moral turpitude of the other side. Once the bearers of moral tur[pitude have been isolated (and this is the job of sociasl science) you can make your mind up entirely about the facts of the case by asking who is promoting a particular view. So the heuristic here is perfectly simple: if the Greens are anti-American, then they must be wrong.

With all that said, water vapour is entirely glorious. The two words deserve to be on her tombstone.


des von bladet 01.17.06 at 5:02 am

Matt: “The names of stars”? How modernity is fallen!


Matt McGrattan 01.17.06 at 5:48 am


Oh, grow up…


jet 01.17.06 at 11:03 am

Matt McGrattan is probably right if only by the simply fact that more people could see the stars at night than can today. I’d also guestimate that a much larger percentage of the population mad their living on the seas than do today.


Jim S 01.17.06 at 11:40 pm

She’s right about the new study showing that plants produce methane. The conclusions that she draws from it and the rest of the post is just nuts.


bellatrys 01.18.06 at 5:01 am

Well, Matt, you’re right in that cosmology and physics (of the classical sort) *were* tied up in studies of astronomy for most of human history – along with cosmogeny, which is why the heresy problems for Copernicus and Galileo and the whole “teach the controversy/you can, if you call it a theory” whitewash over heliocentric revolution in the early Renaissance – whatever von bladet thinks. The recent book on pederasty scandals in 17th c Rome, “Fallen Order”, actually deals with the whole astronomy/heresy situation in quite some detail, since some members of the teaching order under investigation were personal friends of Galileo and others were buddies of the Inquisition, which made internal housecleaning and personal/work rivalries very interesting….

Man on the Renaissance street – or the galleon – could hardly avoid awareness of it all, any more than anyone can avoid awareness of evolution/creationism today. –Still less, because nobody’s going to jail/the stake for arguing the wrong viewpoint in a pub these days.

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