AI: Can We Have Our Ball Back?

This week is UN Climate Summat Week, which is why it’s also ‘James Randi and Johnny Ball say stuff about global warming and cause controversy’ week. I am not going to ask you about the Randi stuff, firstly because it’s covered elsewhere and secondly because I’m still thinking about it. Instead, I am going to ask you about an important aspect of the Johnny Ball debacle. As Rebecca said yesterday, for those non-Brits, a good comparison is the USA’s Mr Wizard. Johnny Ball hosted maths and science-themed kids shows in the 1980s, and he was an inspiration to just about every geek in the country over 25. He disappeared from TV for most of the last few decades, but occasionally pops up doing things like drumming for the Chemical Brothers. Can YOUR dad do this? He’s just cool. And clever. And one of us…

Except for his views on Global Warming, which could be described as “eccentric” were they not shared with a whole movement of people branded “climate change denialists/skeptics”. Well, his go a bit further and blame farting spiders, but he always was one for a quirky perspective. So when he took the stage on Monday night in London at Robin Ince’s ‘Godless’ Nine Lessons and Carols show, the audience were staggered to hear him espouse these views rather than what they were presumably expecting (something they agreed with, or at least something that wasn’t demonstrably wrong in places). If you want to hear his views for yourself before commenting, please listen to Rebecca’s interview with him here.

Some of the audience started heckling and booing. Some started a slow-hand clap. Johnny Ball left the stage. This was widely reported by the media as him having been “booed off stage”. I took exception to that description – he left the stage because he was running 13 minutes over time – he confirmed this to me himself. If he says he didn’t leave the stage because he was booed, then he wasn’t booed off stage. Just a semantic issue, but one I felt important enough to correct. Nonetheless, some members of the audience take credit for having ‘shut him up’ with their behaviour, so I think we should discuss whether or not it’s OK to heckle. Spiked makes an interesting point, asking what’s liberal about yelling at someone til they stop saying things you don’t like. But then again, the audience had paid for tickets and Robin’s event has a reputation for speakers of sound science and entertainment, so maybe they felt ripped off and wanted to express their feelings. Then again again, there were acts at last year’s show which also overran, and were not to the audience’s taste (for example Ricky Gervais told a rape joke which many of the audience hated), but those acts weren’t booed. So I do believe that what Ball was saying was as much a factor in the booing in as how long he said it for. Which does then make me think that the audience simply didn’t want to hear something they didn’t agree with. Not sure if that’s fair enough (they were paying for a particular type of show) or not (this same crowd are furious that Simon Singh is being sued for libel, for example).

Is it OK to heckle or boo to express your dislike of something? Should the paying audience get to ‘censor’ acts they don’t like? Is there a hypocrisy in what happened? Can your dad drum like Johnny Ball?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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  1. Let him finish speaking, then boo instead of applaud afterward. That way it’s not confused with censorship, but you can still express your dislike. I don’t know what a paying audience has a “right” to do, it’s just in good taste to hear someone out.

  2. If someone is expressing their views, however full of shit they may be, then let them finish and then boo, as Nicole says.

    If someone is genuinely crap though, then boo and heckle away.

    Richard Wiseman claims that the booing started when Ball made a race based pun, in which case, that’s a fair enough thing to boo. But I wasn’t there, so can’t really comment.

    I’m quite upset to read this about Johnny Ball – he was a big hero of mine growing up, and being a British geek over 25, he was an inspiration to me as far as my love of maths goes.

  3. Depends on the venue I think. British audiences in particular are used to a much more vocal response from the audience than the US, extending to hissing in Parliament.

    As to what the audience had a right to do or not do I think that if they were unhappy with the show they had a right to complain or ask for a refund. While I don’t think they had any inalienable right to boo, I also don’t think the person on stage had any similar right to not be subject to their expression of displeasure.

    If you put yourself out there you risk not getting the reaction you want, you risk being criticized, heckled, booed, and perhaps even being pelted with overripe fruits and vegetables. But enough about my love life.

    I’ve not listened to his explanation of his position so I can’t speak to it specifically, but being skeptical of the degree to which humans are responsible for the increase in global warming or the mechanisms by which we’ve done so isn’t entirely unreasonable. Denying that humans have any role is certainly unreasonable and borders on the absurd of course.

  4. People applaud to express their enjoyment or approval. It seems reasonable to engage in some kind of similar behavior to express the opposite. I don’t really find it appropriate that it should ever go on to the extent that someone is “booed off stage,” though. Presumably, others in that paying audience want to continue to hear what the speaker is saying. I don’t see why my “rights” as a disgruntled paying customer should trample all over the rights of the other paying customers. If you really want to hear nothing more, then you should just get up and leave. Or read a book or take a nap if you want to stick around for another portion of the event.

    I wouldn’t like it if I had paid to hear Al Gore speak and some deniers in the audience caused such a ruckus that he had to stop. So I shouldn’t do the same to them.

    I do not believe my dad has ever attempted to drum.

  5. When someone is denied their right of free expression by being shouted down or booed into silence a tyranny has been committed in my opinion. I like liberty and in a democracy liberty trumps the will of the audience, the majority or the loudest every time. And it’s not a democracy when two wolves and a sheep are discussing what’s for dinner. As for a performance you’ve paid for I agree that booing should take place afterward unless heckling is an expected part of the give and take with the audience.

  6. I don’t even want to talk about the actual global warming issue here, but I’ve got some beef with what happened in the last few days to Randi and then to this gentleman.

    Obviously I don’t think Randi is dishonest, and most people probably aren’t. However, I think that most of the skeptic community goes a little overboard when GW is in question.

    What’s about calling people denialists as if it was the worst insult? What’s about immediately laugh meanly at people who express doubts or are confused? I thought the skeptic community was supposed to be rational, and to me rationality includes the ability to have urmm… rational discussions.

    So I am disappointed by some exagerated, emotional and blinded reactions that I’ve seen over the last few days. Mr Ball here probably won’t be convinced by such an hysterical reaction of people who, for the most part, probably call themselves skeptics. And God knows that Randi is a skeptic.

    And if anyone calls me a denialist over this :

    (*Eric Cartman’s voice*) I’m gonna kick him in the nuts! x(

  7. @ZenMonkey: A good point. I’m especially insulted by the actions of the Costco in Utah that took tomatoes off their shelves while Sarah Palin was present in the town for a book signing, thus stymieing the right of the people to pelt simpering idiots with produce.

  8. I don’t really know any of the performers, but Robin Ince is billed as a comic, right? So, I’m assuming the show is ostensibly a comedy show. And heckling at a comedy show has a long and storied tradition.

    Heckling at a comedy show demonstrates a distinct lack of refinement. It is frowned upon by performers, club owners, and audiences; at least audiences made up of regular consumers of the art.

    The proper audience reaction to a poorly liked comedian is silence. No laughter. That is “bombing” to a comic. And trust me as someone with experience, bombing is way worse than being heckled. Heckling can actually bail a comic out of a bad bit, because the attention turns briefly from the bit. And the comic rebounds, because no one is going to beat a guy with a mic in his hand.

    Bombing is different. Bombing is experienced only by the performer, while heckling disrupts the entire venue. And yes, no matter what you say, there will be a few people who will like it and be put off if everyone else starts heckling.

    Now booing I can almost understand. I think it demonstrates a lack of refinement, just like heckling, but I can almost understand the urge to boo. Especially if money has changed hands for the performance.

    However, it seems in this case, the booing stemmed from some in the audience not agreeing with Ball on global warming, and not from the fact that they felt they weren’t being entertained, or that they were somehow being cheated. And that doesn’t seem right.

    Of course, maybe the venue, the show, and everything else were such that booing and heckling were the exact behaviors to exhibit.

    In other words, I’ve used several paragraphs in this comment box to say, “I don’t know.”

  9. @Sam Ogden: And the comic rebounds, because no one is going to beat a guy with a mic in his hand.

    Unless you’re Pauly Shore. And even then only if you pay the guy to deck you on stage.

    Really, Pauly Shore is so bad he has to pay people to attack him for being a horrible comedian, so he can release the footage as a viral video.

  10. I think it is okay to boo to express disapproval of a particular opinion, but I don’t think it is okay to keep booing until you boo someone off the stage.

  11. Call me old-fashioned, or high-fallutin’, or pretentious, or whatever you like, but I don’t think it’s good decorum ever to boo an act, whether it be an artistic performance or an academic talk. It’s okay to express disapproval, whether by exchanging looks, refusing to clap, etc., but it’s also just polite to acknowledge the appearance. Of course it is absolutely fine to trash the performance afterwards – that’s what conversation, newspapers, and the intertoobz are fore, after all. Those of us in the business of performing arts can usually tell when an audience doesn’t like our work, anyway – and believe it or not, we usually care.

    That said, I think there are exceptions to this general rule – especially when the speaker is a politician, or anyone in a similar position with lots of power. I’m all for (peaceful) dissent!

  12. First of all I am assuming that this does not refer to a sporting event or the field of entertainment. That said, if one is booing or heckling a speaker, then they can’t be truly be listening. They have their own agenda, their own interest, and if they shut down a speaker, then that might be the crudest form of seeking out confirmation bias by denying an alternative opinion. It is always important to take in as much information as possible, then critically analyze it.

    Debate is essentially the civilized way of heckling, because we listen, analyze, critique and take turns. Whether that debate is on a stage or in print doesn’t matter. Only when point and counterpoint can be compared and “listened to” no matter how bizzare can anyone come up with a conclusion.

    I KNOW Jenny McCarthy is an agenda driven, misinformed, manipulating demon … BECAUSE I’ve listened to her, not because I haven’t.

  13. Regarding sporting events, I am a rabid Philadelphia sports fan and unlike my brethern, I have rarely ever booed “my” players on “my” teams. The few times I have involved an obvious lack of effort, a quitting on the team if you will.

    Regarding live entertainment, I’ve never heckled or booed and it pisses me off when some drunk slob or slut ( yeah … I said slut ) does so. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sober heckler. It is crude and the person doing so has no clue how much courage it takes to get up on a stage and perform.

  14. @halincoh:

    The problem with Jenny McCarthy is that not everyone knows she is full of crap. She uses media and her celebrity to her advantage.

    I think that if people showed up and booed people spewing crap, the boo isn’t particularly useful for the person being booed, but is VERY useful for people listening that are on the fence. If people don’t vocally demonstrate disagreement — at a more primitive level and less like a ‘pointy headed intellectual’ – those folks who have trouble sifting through what is true aren’t aware there are people who disagree strongly. Booing can be useful.

  15. The following is pedantic.

    Booing is a fine social art, and it depends on if the presentation is intended to be entertainment or discourse.

    If you let silence speak, then no one really knows if the audience doesn’t understand or if the speaker has failed. And perhaps you need to show your disapproval about a specific point – if you wait to the end, your disgust isn’t as effective.

    So, boo and be clear about it for informal and entertainment based presentations. Hiss in polite and/or British company. Fall asleep in church. Pace impatiently at the back of the room while texting during a free presentation of any kind. Fail to clap, and glare disarmingly at the end of a formal lecture. Bonus points for walking past the book/merchandise table without purchasing items.

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