For those who don’t know, Margaret Throsby is an ABC presenter, and has been one for a long time. She presents an interview weekdays at midday on ABC Classic FM, in which the interviewee, having nominated three or four pieces of music, is quizzed about his or her life and work. The music breaks up the hour into segments. Margaret is very good at this, and has been doing it for twenty years. Since Classic FM is the aural wallpaper of my life, much of which is now spent at home, I’ve heard a lot of these interviews over the years, and am impressed with her skill, her capacity for hard work, and her style. I’ve met her once only, and briefly.
You learn a lot from these interviews, if you are regular listener. As a result of her work, she must be one of the best-informed people in Australia, across an extraordinary range of material. If a new and important book is out, she will read it. If a visiting celebrity is to be interviewed she will prepare well. She asks good questions, is polite, and gives her subjects an opportunity to say what they want to say. But …
I am writing this essay after listening to three such interviews in the last week or so. The subject for one was John Howard (a repeat), another was David Suzuki (another repeat), and the third was Dr Naomi Oreskes, historian of science best known for her book Merchants of Doubt. I didn’t hear every minute of the interviews, so I went back to the Classic FM website and listened to all of them again.
I’ll start with John Howard, who was interviewed in 2010 after his own memoir, Lazarus Rising, came out. She chose to repeat it at the time of the 20th anniversary of his accession to power in 1996. John Howard is best when he is being interviewed, or speaking without notes, and he was in good form in this interview. For her part, Margaret was unfailingly polite but searching as well. The questions were good ones, and Howard responded well, without dodging or weaving. Was he particularly sad about losing his seat as well as government? Not really, he said. There was a big swing and he had a marginal seat. You had to accept such an outcome. Margaret expressed surprise. But the seat of Bennelong had become increasingly marginal (and Maxine McKew, who defeated him, held it for only one term). Redistributions and demographic change can do funny things to electorates. Anyway, as an interview it was well worth listening to, and honours were even, which is what you would hope for.
Now to the interview with Naomi Oreskes. Her Merchants of Doubt came out in 2010 also. Its message is that a small group of phycisists who had worked on the atomic bomb and rocketry, committed as they were to anti-communism, saw in the campaigns against tobacco, CFCs and later global warming the insidious signs of ‘socialism by the back door’ (Oreskes in the interview). They created doubt about what in science was already settled agreement — a ‘consensus’. There was no doubt among scientists that smoking caused cancer, that CFCs caused a hole in the ozone layer, and that humans were responsible for global warming. That was settled science. Three of the four scientists that Dr Oreskes mentioned are dead, the other is very old. I’ve never met or heard any of them, and they are not at all central in the modern debate about ‘climate change’. The author was here to talk to an audience in Sydney and then appear at a writers’ festival.
At the beginning of the interview Margaret described Merchants of Doubt as ‘compulsive reading’, and maybe it is (I haven’t read it), but that seemed a bit fulsome to me, given that all these issues are highly political. She maintained her distance with John Howard, but with Naomi Oreskes she seemed on side very quickly. Dr Oreskes then said that the science is real; there was ‘no debate in science about the basic reality of man-made climate change’ (the inverted commas come from my notes, and their placement may be slightly in error); ‘almost no one’ in science disagreed about this basic reality. Well, Margaret could have asked her about the scientists who actually do disagree. There are several prominent ones in Australia (Plimer, Paltridge, Kininmonth, Franks, Jo Nova, Jennifer Marohasy and the late Bob Carter), plus Lindzen, Curry, Christy, Happer, Spencer, Pielkes Sr and Jr in the USA, Evans in the UK — all of them peer-reviewed and senior. Not only that, almost all sceptics agree that humans can have an effect on global temperature. They simply disagree about how much, and about whether or not warming is bad.
Margaret put to her that ‘good science is based on uncertainty — isn’t it?’ Dr Oreskes agreed, but slid away from the possibility that climate science could be in error. There was a possibility that something might have been asked about over-confidence in all this. Dr Oreskes said that because of the ban on CFCs the ‘ozone hole is recovering’ then, more strongly, ‘repaired’. But of course it isn’t. We have no real idea about the size of the hole (‘thinning of the layer’ is probably a better way of putting it) prior to its ‘discovery’ in the 1980s. And however long it’s been there, it’s not getting obviously smaller. Some say the thinning is due to natural causes. The truth is, that no one knows; it’s not at all settled science. In the interview, that possibility went through to the keeper.
Dr Oreskes referred several times to ‘climate deniers’ (a ludicrous short form), and regrettably Margaret chimed in with the same usage, which is not good form for an interviewer. If there was one thing that governments could do, asked Margaret, what would it be? ‘Put a price on carbon’, said the sage from the USA. Oh dear. All climate-change-denial arguments have been disproved, said Dr Oreskes towards the end. Oh dear. This is just ludicrous stuff. If you’re going to ask someone like her to your program, you need at least to cross swords with her somewhere. She was untouched from beginning to end.
The ‘ever popular’ Dr Suzuki (Margaret’s term) is no stranger to the program, having been interviewed in 1996, 2000 and 2010. The one I heard was a repeat of the 2010 interview. Dr Suzuki has a surprisingly young voice for someone who is a year older than me, and he is also here for the writer’s festival that attracted Dr Oreskes, whose work he referred to approvingly. Thirty months ago he was on Q&A here, and gave a truly appalling performance from which he emerged as a loud-voiced know-nothing. ‘I’m not a climate scientist’ he said more than once.
But here he is again telling us his message, no less loudly and, no less confidently and no more knowledgeably. Margaret emerged from this interview as the president of his local fan-club. She loves his writing; she loves what he has said about human population (there are too many of us, and we’ll be wiped out before long by a new super virus). He wants a restructured society and economy. She seemed to agree. Tim Flannery told him that the whole of Australia could be converted to alternative energy for $37 billion. There were so many easy questions that could have been asked at that point. None came forward. There are now more extreme weather events, he told her. Anyone who had done any reading could have asked him: what about Pielke Jr’s detailed demonstration that it just ain’t so. There are plenty of other examples. Like Oreskes, he says that human-induced climate change is real. No questioning. Politicians who don’t listen to the scientific community (= him) should be jailed for criminal negligence. No questioning. And so on. I think Suzuki is arguably the supreme ratbag in science today. Paul Ehrlich runs him close.
What a friendly interview it was. I’ve heard many other interviews where global warming was mentioned. I can’t recall a single example where Margaret Throsby took anything like a critical stance, and the two I heard last week, in the context of the professional interview of John Howard, pushed me into writing this essay. Margaret’s excellence doesn’t seem to include the capacity to stand back when her own preferences and standpoints are involved — at least, not in the domain of ‘climate change’. And because her standpoint is similar to so many other presenters in the ABC, it is that widespread lack of impartiality which upsets so many viewers and listeners — a lack of impartiality to which the Board and senior management seem oblivious.
The last Q&A simply emphasised the point with strong assertions about ‘climate change’ (one by the new Chief Scientist, who doesn’t seem to know that the relationship between atmospheric CO2 and temperature is logarithmic) allowed to stand without anything like a searching question. Most assertions were given applause by the resident cheer squad. And the next morning’s ABC news allowed listeners to infer that the hot February was caused by a sudden leap in CO2 parts per million as measured at Mauna Loa. About the ABC, you just give up.
No one should be surprised that the more annoyed listeners want it sold.