A Random Nonsense-Generating Machine

Christopher Booker’s latest cock-ups almost match his all-time record.

By George Monbiot. Published onthe Guardian’s website, 13th October 2011

Does Christopher Booker exist? Or is he simply a device invented to waste as much of other people’s time as possible? Might he in fact be a computer programme randomly generating nonsense in order to keep scientists, environmentalists and public health campaigners so busy refuting it that they can’t get on with what they ought to be doing? I ask because it seems almost impossible that one man could make so many superhuman cock-ups.

Some people claim to have met him, and my friends at Private Eye swear that a man of that name has been working alongside them for 50 years. Veteran journalists assert that there was once a real Christopher Booker, who was capable of intelligent and even penetrating journalism, and that the man who wears his clothes today bears no relationship to the one they once knew. Has he been replaced by a replicant, remotely controlled by an evil genius in a concrete fortress, surrounded by a piranha-stocked moat? Or has he simply been playing to the gallery for so long that he can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction?

In either case, scarcely a week goes by in which he fails to publish at least one excruciating howler. It doesn’t matter what the subject is: whether it is asbestos or the European Union, speeding or the family courts, he makes such a remarkable concatenation of mistakes that, if he didn’t take himself so seriously, you could almost swear he was doing it deliberately.

This time-wasting exercise would be best ignored if it were not for two things: that the Sunday Telegraph continues to give him a platform for this rubbish, and that his cock-ups have consequences.

Much of his journalism consists of the reckless endangerment of the public. In a long series of articles he has falsely claimed that the danger from white asbestos is insignificant. To support his contention that innocent parents are being harassed by over-zealous officials, he relayed a partisan account which served to minimise and dismiss the serious injuries inflicted on a small baby [see paragraph 185 onwards]. The judge presiding over the case he was reporting on pointed out Booker’s “significant factual errors and omissions”. He went on to say: “All of this underlines the dangers inherent in journalists relying on partisan and invariably tendentious reporting by family members and their supporters rather than being present in court to hear the evidence which the court itself hears.”

He has published scores of articles insisting that global warming isn’t caused by humans, and suggesting that we can carry on burning fossil fuels without regard for the climate. Even when the people he cites as his sources (the Health and Safety Executive in the case of asbestos) try to correct him, he keeps repeating the myth.

How many builders have failed to protect themselves from white asbestos during demolitions, as a result of his claims? How many people have burned or vandalised speed cameras after reading his articles? How many people have campaigned against efforts to curtail man-made climate change because of the misinformation he has published?

The mistakes he made in his last column almost compare to his all-time cock-up of cock-ups, in which he pointed out, in February 2008, that “Arctic ice isn’t vanishing after all.” The “warmists”, he said, had made much of the fact that in September 2007 northern hemisphere sea ice cover had shrunk to the lowest level ever recorded. But now the ice cover had bounced back, proving how wrong they were. He even published a graph to demonstrate that the ice had indeed expanded between September and January. In other words, Booker appeared incapable of distinguishing between summer and winter.

The latest example of gibberish very nearly reaches these giddy heights. Though he has been writing about energy policy for longer than I can remember, Booker now demonstrates that the most basic energy concepts elude him.

Here is what he wrote on Sunday:

“Like many other households who, during all that global warming last winter, watched the cost of their oil-fired central heating soaring through the roof, we are now switching to gas. Thus did I learn that the absurdly over-large boiler we are getting rid of generates 100 kilowatts.

“Hang on, I exclaimed: that wind turbine up the hill from where we live in Somerset generated only just over 500kW last year. So a giant wind turbine that cost £2m to build, and that costs us £200,000 a year in subsidies, on top of the £200,000 we pay for its electricity, produces only five times as much energy as the oil-fired boiler I use to warm my house.”

The average 12-year-old should be able to spot at least one of the mistakes here, but let me spell them out. I’ll begin with the word “produces”, as in “produces only five times as much energy as the oil-fired boiler I use to warm my house.”.

I’ll give Booker the benefit of the doubt and assume he is aware that energy is neither created nor destroyed. If so, this must mean he is talking about useful energy, and that “produces” means converting energy we cannot use into energy we can use. A wind turbine turns the energy in wind into electricity. But a boiler does not produce energy, even in the sense that Booker appears to mean. It uses energy. The energy is contained in the oil it burns, which it converts into heat. Booker, it seems, cannot tell the difference between production and consumption.

Nor does he seem able to distinguish between heat and electricity. He seems to have mistaken his boiler for a generator. Boilers (furnaces in the US) produce heat, not power. You cannot make a meaningful comparison between the production capacity of heat and the production capacity of electricity.

Perhaps worst of all, he doesn’t know the difference between capacity and output. “That wind turbine generated only just over 500kW last year” is as meaningful as “my car travelled 200 horsepower last year”.

500kW is the capacity (or rating) of the wind turbine. The output is measured in kilowatt hours. It beggars belief that, after writing on this subject for so many years, he appears to be unaware of the difference.

Summer and winter, production and consumption, heat and power, capacity and output: are there any distinctions Christopher Booker recognises? Isn’t it time that the Sunday Telegraph not only protected its readers from this nonsense but also protected him from himself, by either retiring him or, at the very least, checking his facts?