Is having an open mind the problem?
It has occurred to me that this is a very profound and important question for our times. I suspect that most people would put having an open mind up there alongside not killing people, but is it? Having an open mind should not be confused with being tolerant and/or flexible; and we cannot afford for it to be synonymous with being undecided (but more on that later).
For an individual to have an open mind, it is first of all necessary for that individual to believe that he or she has the requisite knowledge and understanding, or intellectual and analytical faculties, to assess information (if a valid conclusion is to be reached). This is OK if the question is, “Have a listen to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and tell me whether you like it or not?” However, this is not OK if the question is, “Do you think we should accept the settled opinion of the vast majority of climate scientists who say we face an environmental catastrophe if we do not now act to prevent it?”
I am not a climate scientist, so why should I suppose that I can second-guess their opinions? Therefore, any non-climate scientist who rejects the consensus view (or indeed denies its existence) must be some kind of conspiracy theorist! How can anyone claim to have an open mind if, all the time, a little voice in their head is telling them that they are being lied to? But, you may say, what are we to do if both sides of the [supposed] debate over the validity of climate science claim that the other is involved in folly, error, or deceit…? Indeed, this is what leaves most people having no fixed opinion. However, as I said on this blog a few months ago:
“There is simply no evidence for [a] left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer). Whereas, there is a great deal of evidence for a right-wing conspiracy to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).” [Quoted from my 'To all who say AGW is junk science' (4 October 2011)] (N.B. For AGW, please now read anthropogenic climate disruption [ACD])
I believe it is that simple. This is because the marketplace of ideas is a nonsensical fallacy. Irrespective of how earnestly they are cherished, all opinions are not equally valid. Some people really do know better than we do. I think it is time we all accepted this as fact. As David Aaronovitch says in his Voodoo Histories – How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped modern History (2010), if all opinions are equally valid “…then we are lost… Relativism doesn’t care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic” (page 335). [See this quoted in context in my 'All that is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”' (16 August 2011)]
Therefore, if we indulge it, the marketplace of ideas ultimately demands that non-scientists be allowed to act as judge and jury over complex scientific matters that they do not really understand. This is exactly what most people who dissent from the consensus view of climate change insist is their right. Indeed, this is exactly what James Delingpole (JD) asserted should happen a year ago on a BBC TV programme “Meet the Climate Sceptcs”. However, this is illogical and completely insane. (N.B. There is a link to a video clip and partial transcript of JD’s interview with Sir Paul Nurse from my marketplace of ideas post linked to above). Meanwhile, though there may rarely (if ever) be certainty in science, we always have probability; and probability becomes greater when observations match or exceed theory and/or predictions. This is where we are today with climate science.
The time for indecision has now passed.
What we need is the wisdom to know – and be comfortable with – the limit of our own expertise and, therefore, to know when it is appropriate to defer to a higher authority. Although it was a little tongue-in-cheek, this was the point I sought to make in my AGW – What would Jesus do? (18 September 2011): However, even if we could get all the greatest intellectual minds together and give them all the information to help them decide what we ought to do, would we listen? Or do we rate our own opinions higher than them; as well as all the experts?
This is why climate change denial reduces either to ‘marketplace of ideas’ thinking or to conspiracy theory: But, as I said, there is only one conspiracy and it is not a theory; it is a well-documented historical fact. This was probably best summarised on my very first substantive post on this blog: ‘Sceptical economists are intellectually bankrupt’ (10 August 2011).
That leaves us with a decision to take as to whether we are going to listen to the marketplace of ideas or listen to voices of authority. Our decision could have enormous consequences because, until we all insist that our politicians demand that action be taken, our politicians will continue to be controlled by the vested interests of big business and the fossil fuel lobby. Again, this is not conspiracy theory; it is well-documented fact.
This too is something upon which you should not have an open mind.