The Patron Saint of Charlatans

How does Christopher Booker get away with it?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd September 2008

Does Moore’s Law now apply to human civilisation? In 1965 Gordon Moore predicted that the density of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years or so. Similar laws now seem to apply to every aspect of computing. And, perhaps, to rest of the world. The information available, the scale of human interactions, the detail involved in financial deals, trading relationships and political decisions appear to be growing exponentially. We are drowning in complexity. To be good citizens we must understand what is done in our name. But how?

We lean ever more heavily on experts. But who can we now trust? Corporate PR campaigns have become so sophisticated that it’s almost impossible for most people to tell the difference between genuine science and greenwash, or real grassroots campaigns and the astroturf lobbies concocted by consultants(1). Public relations companies set up institutes with impressive names, which publish what purport to be scientific papers, sometimes in the font and format of genuine journals(2). They accuse real scientists of every charge that could be levelled at themselves: junk science, hidden funding, undisclosed interests and inflated credentials.

If journalists have any remaining function, it is to help people navigate this world: to try to understand the crushingly dull documents that most people don’t have time for, to smoke out the fakes and show how to recognise the genuine article. But we mess up too. The most we can promise is to try not to make the same mistake twice.

So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?

This week Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again is published.(3) It contains a fascinating chapter on Booker’s claims about white asbestos. Since 2002, he has published 38 articles on this topic, and every one of them is wrong.

He champions the work of a man named John Bridle, who has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”(4). Bridle has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department(5). None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed(6). His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is to have been successfully prosecuted by it for claiming a qualification he does not possess(7,8).

None of this deters Mr Booker. Armed with Bridle’s claims, for the past six years he has waged a campaign against asbestos science. White asbestos cement, he maintains “poses no measurable risk to health”(9). He contends that “not a single case” of mesothelioma – the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – “has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement”(10). A paper commissioned by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, he says, “concluded that the risk from white asbestos is “virtually zero”.”(11)

Booker tells me he has read this paper. Oh yes? The term he quotes – “virtually zero” – does not appear in it(12). It does show that white asbestos (chrysotile) is less dangerous than brown or blue asbestos. But, while there is uncertainty about the numbers, it still presents a risk of mesothelioma, which depends on the level of exposure. People exposed to a high dose (between 10 and 100 fibres per millilitre per year (f/ml.yr)) have a risk (around two deaths per 100,000 for each f/ml.yr) of contracting this cancer. Only when the dose falls to 0.1 f/ml.yr does it become “probably insignificant”(13). But Booker’s columns contain no such caveat. He creates the impression that white asbestos is safe at all doses. The paper he misquotes also cites five scientific studies of exposure to asbestos cement, which record “high levels of mesothelioma mortality.”(14,15,16,17,18)

Two years ago, John Bridle’s misleading CV and dodgy record were exposed by the BBC’s You and Yours programme(19). So the BBC immediately became part of the conspiracy: in Booker’s words “a concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”(20). He suggested that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom would clear John Bridle’s name(21). In June this year it threw out Bridle’s complaint and published evidence even more damning than that contained in the programme(22). So has Booker changed the way he sees “Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”? Far from it. He tells me that “my view of Ofcom has plummeted”(23): it too has joined the conspiracy.

We are not talking about trivia here. This is a matter of life and death. How many people might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos dust as a result of reading and believing Mr Booker’s columns?

For several years Booker has been waging a similar war against “warmist alarmists”, by which he means climate scientists. Nine days ago, for example, he attacked Michael Mann for publishing a paper which shows (alongside scores of other studies) that global temperatures do indeed follow the famous hockey-stick pattern: a moderate long-term cooling trend terminating in a sudden upwards bend. Mann, Booker told his readers, had been “selective … in his new data, excluding anything which confirmed the Mediaeval Warming”(24). But Mann’s paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses every uncluttered high-resolution proxy temperature record in the public domain(25). How did Booker trip up so badly? By using the claims of unqualified bloggers to refute peer-reviewed studies.

Under their guidance he routinely mistakes weather for climate and makes claims about the temperature record which bear no relation to the studies he cites. My favourite Booker column is the piece he wrote in February, titled “So it appears that Arctic ice isn’t vanishing after all.” In September 2007, he reported, “sea ice cover had shrunk to the lowest level ever recorded. But for some reason the warmists are less keen on the latest satellite findings, reported by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. … Its graph of northern hemisphere sea ice area, which shows the ice shrinking from 13,000 million sq km to just 4 million from the start of 2007 to October, also shows it now almost back to 13 million sq km.”(26) To reinforce this point, he helpfully republished the graph, showing that the ice had indeed expanded between September and January. The Sunday Telegraph continues to employ a man who cannot tell the difference between summer and winter.

But for the Wikipedia Professor of Gibberish, this patron saint of charlatans, even the seasons are negotiable. Booker remains right, whatever the evidence says. It is hard to think of any journalist – Melanie Phillips included – who has spread more misinformation. The world becomes even harder to navigate. You cannot trust the people who tell you whom to trust.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. See Chapter 2 (The Denial Industry) of my book Heat: how to stop the planet burning. 2007. Penguin, London.

2. See for example Arthur B. Robinson, Sallie L. Baliunas, Willie Soon, And Zachary W. Robinson, 1998. Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and the George C. Marshall Institute. http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p36.htm. This paper was printed in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

3. Richard Wilson, 2008. Don’t Get Fooled Again: a sceptic’s guide to life. Icon Books, Cambridge.

4. Ofcom, June 2008. Broadcast Bulletin No. 111. Complaint by Professor John Bridle brought on his behalf by Fisher Scoggins LLP. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/obb/prog_cb/obb111/issue111.pdf

5. You and Yours, BBC Radio 4, 18th October 2006.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. I wrote to John Bridle twice seeking to put questions to him. On Wednesday 24th September he sent me an email containing the text of the message he said he sent on Friday 19th, but which, to my regret, I did not receive. He says he did not receive the second email, which I sent at 0609 on Monday 22nd. He maintains that everything Booker has said about him is accurate and that he is “hoping to ask for an appeal [of his conviction] as soon as the Labour party is out of power and influence over asbestos matters”.

9. Christopher Booker, 25th May 2008. Farmers face £6bn bill for asbestos clean-up. Sunday Telegraph.

10. Christopher Booker, 31st January 2004. The BBC helps to sex up the asbestos threat. Sunday Telegraph.

11. Christopher Booker, 12th January 2002. Billions to be spent on nonexistent risk. Sunday Telegraph.

12. John T. Hodgson And Andrew Darnton, 2000. The Quantitative Risks of Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer in Relation to Asbestos Exposure. Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Vol. 44, No. 8, pp. 565–601.

13. ibid, Table 11.

14. M. Albin, Jacobson, K., Attawell, R., Johannson, L. and Wellinder, H., 1990. Mortality and cancer morbidity in cohorts of asbestos cement workers and referents. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Vol. 47, 602–610.

15. M. Albin, Johansson, L., Pooley, F. D., Jakobsson, K., Attawell, R. and Mitha, R., 1990. Mineral fibres, fibrosis and
asbestos products in the lungs from deceased asbestos cement workers. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Vol. 47, 747–774.

16. M.M.Finkelstein, 1984. Mortality among employees of an Ontario asbestos-cement factory. American Review of Respiratory Disease. Vol. 129, 750–761.

17. M.M.Finkelstein and Vingilis, J. J., 1984. Radiographic abnormalities among asbestos cement workers: and exposure response study. American Review of Respiratory Disease. Vol. 129, 17–22.

18. M.M.Finkelstein, 1989. Mortality among employees of an Ontario factory manufacturing insulation materials from amosite asbestos. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Vol. 15, 477–481.

19. You and Yours, ibid.

20. Christopher Booker, 14th October 2006. The BBC falls for the asbestos scam. Sunday Telegraph.

21. Christopher Booker and Richard North, 2007. Scared to Death. From BSE to global warming: why scares are costing us the earth. P319. Continuum, London.

22. Ofcom, ibid.

23. Christopher Booker, 22nd September 2008. By telephone.

24. Christopher Booker, 14th September 2008. Climate change chicanery. Sunday Telegraph.

25. Michael E. Mann et al, 9th September 2008. Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. PNAS. Vol. 105, No. 36, pp13252–13257. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

26. Christopher Booker, 4th February 2008. So it appears that Arctic ice isn’t vanishing after all. Sunday Telegraph.

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