Archive for the ‘relativism’ Category
I have written much and often about Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s brilliant 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, but, if I am honest, our biggest problem is the scientifically-illiterate journalists that regurgitate misleading information, arguments and ideas; mainly as a consequence of ideological prejudice.
As I recently said to John Kosowski, I am sure they genuinely believe what they say is true. But so do people who believe the Moon Landings were faked and/or that 9/11 was an inside job: I believe that their problem is that they have decided that they cannot allow humans to be found to be responsible for climate change (because that would require fundamental behaviour modification)… Like Aldous Huxley setting out to prove that God does not exist, they have set out to prove that we are not responsible for climate change. Sure enough, they have found some evidence that appears to suggest to them that we are not the primary cause, but they are recklessly over-playing their hand.
Of course, John then picked me up on my preceding accusation that such people (and/or conservative think tanks [CTTs] like the Heartland Institute) are willfully peddling “misinformation” (i.e. saying stuff they know to be false). However, my response to that was – and is – that… If they are honestly misguided but in error then, OK, they cannot be guilty of deceit. However, that does not change the extremely high probability that they are ideologically prejudiced against accepting what the majority of climate scientists tell us; and it does not change the undeniable fact that like-minded people have denied a wide range of environmental problems in the past for the same reason. In other words, they have “form”. This is the message of Merchants of Doubt.
However, what about these journalists that do so much to spread their Merchants’ message of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD); where the fear is that there is:
– A socialist plot to subvert national governance via the UN (i.e. very reminiscent of the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax that does so much to perpetuate unrest in the Middle East because so many Arabs still believe it to be genuine); or
– A scientific conspiracy to foist environmental alarmism upon a credulous world purely to secure ongoing finance for their own research.
Failing that, the objective is just to perpetuate uncertainty and doubt in exactly the same way that the tobacco companies did (i.e. “the science is not settled – so we can all continue smoking”). Why are so many people still taken-in by this? Whatever happened to “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” Truly, anyone still fooled by this should be ashamed of themselves…
So, this week I am going to do something I have been meaning to do for some time, publish some examples of how and why these misguided – and I would say misinformed – journalists (who no doubt really believe in the validity of what they write) are so blatantly in error: In essence, this is because they are not scientists and, therefore, they are incapable of reaching a reliable judgement about the science. Instead, at best, they filter what they read through their own political prejudice and, at worst, they uncritically repeat the misleading arguments and misrepresented findings with which the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ feed them (or feed their conspiracy theories).
20 years ago, the most prominent ‘Merchants of Doubt’ were Bill Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer; whereas today, the indomitable Fred Singer is primarily supported by the likes of Richard Lindzen, Partick Michaels, and Roy Spencer; all of whose research is primarily financed by CTTs acting as money laundering facilities for big businesses with special interests to protect (and ‘to hell with the planet’, hey guys?). Unlike the evidence for the FUD conspiracies postulated above, even before the revelations about the Heartland Institute last week, there was a great deal of evidence to show that big business – and the oil industry in particular – is engaged in just such a misinformation campaign. There is, therefore, no getting around the fact that this is straightforward political interference in the process of scientific enquiry. Furthermore, as such, any non-profit organisation in the USA so involved should be prosecuted under Federal Law. I genuinely hope that this will now happen.
However, I digress… Over the next four days, I will post four examples of non-scientific British journalists who are peddling the FUD message for prejudicial reasons, as follows:
– Brendan O’Neill – a left-wing ‘sceptic’;
– Melanie Phillips – an unorthodox ‘sceptic’;
– Christopher Booker – an illogical ‘sceptic’; and
– James Delingpole – an ideological ‘sceptic’.
As such, all of what will follow in the coming days is based on the research (into climate change scepticism in the UK) I did to produce a 15,000 word dissertation as part of the requirements for my MA in Environmental Politics. More information about this is available on my About page but, in this present context, the key conclusion I reached was as follows:
Whereas the majority of CTTs analysed dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus, and the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories, the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion; whereas politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist and/or economic arguments for inaction.
After a week of online discussion with John Kosowski (an Engineer from Illiois and – clearly – an amateur climate scientist in his spare time), I am posting this, my latest reply to his questions, as a new blog post in its own right; to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.
John and I have had our moments, each accusing the other of suspicious behaviour and/or feigning injury but, although at times extremely annoying, I believe John’s questioning has made me raise my game and become clearer and more concise in my responses. Here then, in response to his most recent attempt to resist what climate scientists are telling us, is where I think we have got to:
As I have repeatedly said to you John, I have no interest in playing numbers games with you. The purpose of this blog is not to discuss the science upon which concern over anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is based, it is to focus attention on:
– the ideological prejudice causing many to delay us all taking mitigating action; and
– the politics and psychology causing people to deny the reality of what is now happening.
I too am capable of reading; and am fully aware of the limitations of Doran and Zimmerman’s (2009) work. However, have you read all 19 of the references on the ‘Surveys of scientists’ views on climate change’ Wikipedia page? What about all the Papers and Presentations contained on the ’4 Degrees and Beyond International Conference’ page? Have you read (and dismissed) all of them as well?
This stuff may be complicated, but it is not Rocket Science! (N.B. You need to read to at least 3rd paragraph of this (19 August 2011) post to see why I am linking to it here).
So, in a word, YES, I do believe a firm majority of those whose opinions should concern us do now acknowledge that Hansen has been proven right (because his modelled predictions match what happened when you look at the emissions scenario that turned out to be the right one). In addition, I do believe that the same majority accept there is sufficient probability of his being right about interpreting what is now happening for it to be imperative that we move to a zero-carbon global economy as fast as possible. As I have said before, I think you are basically out-of-date; a very great deal has changed since 2007. The debate should be over – not because I want to silent dissent but because the evidence is overwhelming – the only people who want you to think otherwise are those who will be hit the hardest by rapid investment in renewable energy and a cessation of fossil fuel burning.
However, when you are in a hole, it is always a good idea to stop digging:
“As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11).
In the course of the last week, we (you and I) have discussed palaeoclimatology, politics, philosophy, and now climate modelling. On each and every front, I have answered your questions or directed you to sources that I believe could do so. Your response has generally been to come back with more questions; and when I ask you to logically justify your “scepticism” you just play numbers games (which I have specifically asked you not to do). Is it any wonder that I have occasionally, regretfully, lost my patience with you or become suspicious? For example, why are you still taking any notice of Roy Spencer?
At what point in Barry Bickmore’s presentation did you put your hands over your ears and start shouting “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!”…?
If you are not open to accepting that we may well be at a fork in the road right now; that the Earth may well have reached a tipping point it has not been at before, then you are wasting my time. End of story.
Barry Bickmore is Associate Professor of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University (Utah, USA). His research specialties are low-temperature geochemistry and geoscience education. In this 40-minute presentation (appended below), he discusses how he moved from being a climate change “sceptic” to being an outspoken advocate of mainstream climate science. He then discusses how it is that people like him can so effectively avoid the truth about climate change. This is the best presentation I have yet seen of all the reasons why so-called climate change “sceptics” are, in point of fact, nothing of the kind… But first, used with permission, here is Barry’s own introduction, as quoted from his own WordPress blog on 11 Nov 2011:
I gave a talk called “How to Avoid the Truth About Climate Change” for the College of Science and Health at Utah Valley University. For those of you who aren’t familiar with me, I am a Republican and a geochemist who, until a few years ago, was quite skeptical about the idea that humans are causing significant climate change.
In the presentation, I briefly talked about how I had made the transition from being a climate change “skeptic” to being an outspoken advocate of mainstream climate science. I then discussed how it is that people like me can so effectively avoid the truth about climate change.
Please pass this video along! I am actually writing a book with the same title, but there’s no way I can get it published before the Republican primaries. Hopefully this kind of thing can influence a few people toward the center on this issue.
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.
A Review of ‘Liberalism’ by Marcel Wissenburg, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R. (2006), Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (pp.20-34), Cambridge: CUP.
In the opening chapters of Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, the contributing authors attempt to demonstrate how different ideologies can claim common cause with environmental concern. As such, some readers might characterise this second chapter, following as it does that by Roger Scruton on ‘Conservatism’ (see yesterday’s post), as going from the merely foolhardy to the downright ridiculous. Certainly, Marcel Wissenburg acknowledges the severity of his challenge in his opening sentence by admitting that it is “…not uncommon to point to liberalism as the evil genius behind the ecological crisis”.
This is, if you like, the null hypothesis that Wissenburg then sets out to falsify, by proposing ways in which the liberalism of today has in fact matured from a very rebellious youth – into a pillar of the modern global community – ready to take on the new responsibilities posed by the ecological challenges that we now face. Wissenburg therefore starts his defence by pointing out the differences between classical liberalism “…as a ‘pure’ political theory…” and “…the practice of liberalism or the practices ascribed to liberalism…” (p.20).
Wissenburg alludes to the fact that, although the morality of human slavery was not questioned in the time of John Locke (1632 – 1704), it is now universally condemned as inhumane and racist. Therefore, Wissenburg’s defence of liberalism is based on an appeal to its philosophical roots rather than any of its political consequences (historical or current).
Over the course of pages 20 to 22, Wissenburg discusses what he considers to be the three main reasons for the demonisation of liberalism; namely that (i) it has inherited from the Enlightenment a false (Descartian) dichotomy between humans and nature (p.20); (ii) it is inextricably linked to the idea that progress and/or growth is a legitimate end in itself and therefore sees nature in terms of instrumental (rather than intrinsic) value only (p.21); and that (iii) when it comes to any “system of rights” it must be “neutral” (p.22). In this latter respect, liberalism is thus the archetypal defender of moral relativism (or “pluralism” as Wissenburg prefers to call it). He then attempts his “greening of liberalism” (p.23-31), tackling the issues of liberalism’s neutrality; anthropocentrism, and focus on economic development (i.e. Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” and Herman Daley’s “growthmania”).
With regard to neutrality, Wissenburg draws upon the work of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill in order to argue that liberal neutrality cannot be absolute; and is necessarily limited by ethical and ontological assumptions (i.e. that no-one can be entirely and consistently neutral without being an anarchist). So far, so good.
With regard to anthropocentricism, Wissenburg sees the ecological challenge as being twofold, namely a critique of (a) “the liberal subject (individual humans)” and (b) “its conception of the value of nature” (p.26). Building on his preceding argument, he dismisses the first of these critiques by asserting that, because it ultimately limits the neutrality of liberalism, self-interest ensures the environment is protected purely by virtue of its instrumental value to both existing humans and future generations.
However, Wissenburg concedes that adherence to the solely instrumental value of nature means that ecologism (i.e. ecocentric environmentalism) is much more of a challenge; and therefore proposes that there are three possible solutions to this problem, which are as follows:
– Abdication (i.e. liberalism cannot accept inherent value in nature and thus it cannot be “greened”); or
– Accommodation (i.e. “it is more important that the right things be done than that they be done in any particular way” ); or
– Appreciation (i.e. “if liberals value choice for the sake of autonomy, then they should value the existence of as many ‘life environments’ as possible”. [i.e. Wissenburg’s summary (p.29) of an argument he credits to Dobson]).
Finally, with regard to the liberal belief in the primacy of the pursuit of economic progress, Wissenburg proposes that the fundamental right of the individual to own property (as espoused by the founding fathers of the New World (p.29)) was based on the erroneous assumption that all resources (including land) are infinite; something with which Daley (and many others) would agree. However, highlighting Anderson and Leal as the proponents of “free market environmentalism”, Wissenburg insists that to argue that privatising natural resources makes individual owners directly responsible for [maintaining] the value of their property, is to conflate the exchange value of money with the (at least instrumental) value of nature (p.30). Furthermore, Wissenburg appears equally ambivalent about other attempts to reconcile liberalism and ecologism (i.e. green consumerism and ecological modernisation).
Wissenburg thus proposes two initial conclusions (p.31):
1. Classical liberalism “cannot meet the ecological challenge… [unless it accepts] …limits to neutrality and [rids] itself of its anthropocentric bias”; but
2. Liberalism thus transformed (“perhaps beyond recognition”) is capable of meeting the challenge (“at least in theory”).
However, it is debatable whether the arguments put forward actually support even these tentative conclusions: In the opinion of this reviewer at least, one does not have to believe that all property is theft in order to realise that liberalism is inherently incompatible with ecologism.
Therefore, although Wissenburg then goes on to accept that liberalism is irreconcilable with “green thinkers who… reject the notions of property and ownership” (p.32), he rebukes deep ecologists for seeking an unattainable utopia; demanding instead that we all deal with the world as it is – not how we would like it to be. However, by rejecting any notion of “a unique road to salvation” (p.32) – or of any moral imperative to protect the environment – in favour of moral relativism; true liberals must surely be inherently selfish and incapable of altruism? If so, liberalism genuinely is the “evil genius behind the ecological crisis”; although that does not, by any means, excuse the behaviour of the rest of us.
Accordingly, Wissenburg concludes by questioning why there is still a global crisis if liberalism can meet the ecological challenge. However, perhaps quite reasonably, he suggests that this is an unfair question because the world is run by liberals not ecologists, or to put it another way, he thinks the lunatics have not yet taken over the asylum!
My children are of such an age that they were due to get the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine in 1998 (just when Andrew Wakefield first got his research published). I am very glad we ignored the fuss and concluded it was best to get our children immunised. With regards to the MRSA (superbug) health scare (and E. Coli and Legionalla, etc.), I can vividly remember being absolutely petrified every time anyone I knew went into hospital.
Therefore, having lived through both of these health scares, imagine my surprise to read in the final chapters of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science that both the MMR and the MRSA health scares were entirely manufactured by journalists whose sole aim was to increase their readership! This is the scale of Goldacre’s claim and, as with everything else in his book, he backs it up with great wit and style (oh, and a lot of logic and evidence too).
Of course, once it became clear that the MMR game was up, the very same journalists then tried to blame the entire media circus on Wakefield. With regards to MRSA, it is very regrettable that the late Christopher Malyszewicz , the man responsible for obtaining all the false positive results in Chemsol Consulting’s laboratory (i.e. his garden-shed), was killed in an apparently-genuine car accident soon after his lack of suitable qualifications and methods came to light.
However, what can or should we learn from all this? Perhaps, we should not believe everything we read in the newspapers? May be. Personally-speaking, since I have never had the kind of job that requires me to commute into a large city on public transport, I gave up reading newspapers (if ever I did it at all) with the advent of Breakfast TV (and that’s mostly visual chewing-gum too)!
I think the really scary thing about all of this is the realisation of just how much psychological power and influence these journalists have; and even more scary, I think they know it. That is why so many of them are so very arrogant. Unfortunately, as Goldacre points out, those that are often the most arrogant are also the least well-qualified to comment.
Although withdrawal and/or cynicism is an understandable response, it would be far more constructive to develop the ability to critically assess all truth claims yourself. This is what studying science teaches you to do. The only problem with this idea is that we are all not scientists and, boy, are we paying a heavy price for the consequences!
I guess that we must hope that, emboldened by the evidence which continues to pour in – and by the pleas of people like the Government’s Chief Scientist Professor Sir John Beddington that we should be “grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method” — scientists will now stand up and make their voices heard…
Why am I saying all this? Well it is because of the nature of the people that many of these foolish journalists listen to: The same people that tried to tell us that smoking, organic pesticides, CFCs, and acid rain were not dangerous have, since at least 1992, been trying to tell the world that environmental concern is misplaced, misanthropic, anti-libertarian, and/or anti-progress. Therefore, I will never apologise for getting worked-up about this; because the future of billions of people depends on us all now deciding to pull our heads out of the sand; and take the issue of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) seriously.
I recently got into a discussion over on the Amazon website with another ex-Telegraph blogger, regarding Peter Taylor’s Chill, A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory: Does Climate Change Mean the World is Cooling, and If So What Should We Do About It? (2009).
In point of fact, it is this “discussion” that actually prompted my recent “marketplace of ideas” post (because the person in question admits to being “climate-illiterate” but is happy to ridicule the consensus view of AGW as being “warmist”). However, I digress…
I was asked to justify my claim that AGW is advancing faster than IPCC AR4 (2007) claimed, which I did. Unfortunately, the responses I got were either evasive, or indicative of an absolute refusal to look at the data provided to back up my claim; which is otherwise known as “blind prejudice”. Furthermore, when, frustrated by such evasion of the issues and a refusal to debate facts, I became progressively more “blunt”; I was accused of being abusive and claiming moral superiority.
However, everything I said during this “discussion” was very carefully worded to avoid such an accusation, because I want people to discuss the facts; rather than debating conflicting conspiracy theories: Therefore, I suggested that, “…there is simply no evidence for your 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…”
Needless to say, the response(s) I got were not rational. Or were they? Take a look at the whole exchange for yourself and, please, tell me what you think:
“Welcome Return to Reality” – Discussion
P.S. (18 August): I turns out I got confused becasue, although it was “gadgetbadger” that asked the original question, it was “Badger O Stripey One” who then engaged in a fruitless debate (which he has now decided to end).
P.P.S. (21 August): See also my “discussion” with a certain Peter Freeman appended to the ‘About’ page (which is the reason for my here tagging Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, Martin Durkin, Andrew Montford, Brendan O’Neill, Melanie Philips, and Tim Worstall).
This can be seen in a UK education system that has been compromised by left-wing progressive ideas that have been repeatedly tried and found wanting; and yet we keep trying them – why is that?…
The so-called “marketplace of ideas” is a product of a postmodern world that has been over-run by all-pervasive, morally-bankrupt, relativism. It is – as David Aaronovitch points out in the conclusion to his Voodoo Histories book (yes I am back to that again!) – the root cause of the paralysis that prevents many people from resolving their ambivalence towards climate change: “If all narratives are relative, 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” (2010, p. 335).
Thus, the curse of relativism convinces non-scientists that their opinions are just as valid as those of scientists; and erodes respect for all reasonable authority. In this context, the serial failing of our educational system over recent decades (in stealing from teachers all effective sanctions and forms of punishment for errant behaviour) has merely compounded the problem.
Somehow, our society needs to re-discover its respect for authority; and realise that all ideas do not have equal merit. Because if it does not do so, we are doomed to a future in which the topsy-turvy thinking of people like James Delingpole will hold sway. For example, in a remarkably frank interview with Sir Paul Nurse, as broadcast on a BBC Horizon programme entitled Meet the Climate Sceptics on 24 January 2011, Delingpole admitted that:
– he believes concern about climate change is being driven by a “political agenda” seeking “control” over people;
– “the peer review process has been perhaps irretrievably corrupted” (presumably he meant ‘discredited’?) by Climategate;
– Science should now be assessed by “peer-to-peer review” over the Internet by thousands and thousands of people including “people like me [i.e. him!] that haven’t got a scientific background”.
When Nurse queried the legitimacy of this [non-peer review] process, by asking if he would or could read peer-reviewed scientific literature, Delingpole’s response was stupendously illogical: “It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed science papers because… I haven’t got the scientific expertise… I am an interpreter of interpretations…” [Some might argue that one or two comments posted 6 months ago in response to this particular youtube video of the interview seem to have got the measure of JD; but I could not possibly comment!]
However, if we acquiesce in allowing such relativism to be dressed-up as seeking the common interest (i.e. populism), we will soon be so far up an excrement-filled channel without a means of propulsion that the only viable means of employment left for those of us concerned for the welfare of our environment may be to open a waste to energy (biogas) plant!