Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Plausible Deniability of Personal Responsibility

Back in early April, I joked about the fact that the Bush administration had begun showing a penchant for lecturing us 'uninformed masses' about the reality of the longstanding ethnic/sectarian divisions in Iraq. The recent appeal to history, made in an attempt to excuse their own incompetence in helping ignite the current civil war, stood in sharp contrast to the pre-invasion rosy predictions about how Iraq had no real history of ethnic conflict, and that it was only "pop sociologists" that predicted tensions between the Shiites and the Sunnis. They were busy talking cake-walk.

In one of the more embarrassingly simplistic tutorials, our President, employing the tone of an exasperated parent, offered this account of historical significance [emphasis mine throughout]:
It's what Americans have got to understand. We tend to forget. Ours is a society where things are like instant, so therefore, history almost is like so far back it doesn't count.

In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. He is a tyrant who exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power. Iraq is a nation with many ethnic and religious and sectarian and regional and tribal divisions.
At the end of that post, I concocted some other satirical, after-the-fact courses of study that I speculated, in jest, we might be treated to from the Right over the next couple of decades. One such hypothetical class was as follows:
- Global Warming Is Real/Why Environmentalists Are To Blame For Inaction - How environmentalists thwarted the GOP's many plans to address global warming (Instructors: Gail Norton, Dick Cheney, Michael Crichton and James Inhofe, 4/01/15)
Unfortunately, as I've been forced to acknowledge, both satire and snark are dead - casualties of the increasingly detached-from-reality narratives put forth by the Right to explain away the inconvenient truths encroaching on their well-spun world view. At the vanguard of the crusade to vanquish satire, we find the inimitable Peggy Noonan getting a head start on blaming the environmentalists and scientists themselves for, of all things, thwarting GOP plans to address global warming (via the Poor Man's Kit-utopia):
During the past week's heat wave--it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday--I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world's greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? ..Also, if global warning is real, what must--must--the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges?

You would think the world's greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can't. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.

And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.

If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.

But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy.
Amazing. My jaw hit the floor when I read it - as surprised at the gall of Noonan's argument as I was at its remarkable similarity to my previous attempt at satire. The only difference being that Noonan's pre-emptive revisionism isn't waiting around to silently spring into action. She is, as they say, ahead of her time.

And funny you should mention all those scientists that can't seem to come to a consensus, Peggy. If one scratches the surface of the faux-debate, it becomes clear that the editorial page that employs you has some part in creating the illusion of dissonance that you so cynically enlisted in your attempts to kick up dust. As Kevin Drum noted:

Two years ago, Naomi Oreskes published a widely cited piece in Science that reviewed a large sample of journal articles on climate change published between 1993-2003. Her conclusion: not a single paper refuted the position that the earth is warming and humans are largely responsible.

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed declaring that Oreskes was mistaken and suggesting that there really was considerable debate within the scientific community.
Here, Oreskes responds in her own words:

An Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal a month ago claimed that a published study affirming the existence of a scientific consensus on the reality of global warming had been refuted. This charge was repeated again last week, in a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

I am the author of that study, which appeared two years ago in the journal Science, and I'm here to tell you that the consensus stands. The argument put forward in the Wall Street Journal was based on an Internet posting; it has not appeared in a peer-reviewed journal - the normal way to challenge an academic finding. (The Wall Street Journal didn't even get my name right!)

My study demonstrated that there is no significant disagreement within the scientific community that the Earth is warming and that human activities are the principal cause.

Papers that continue to rehash arguments that have already been addressed and questions that have already been answered will, of course, be rejected by scientific journals, and this explains my findings. Not a single paper in a large sample of peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 refuted the consensus position, summarized by the National Academy of Sciences, that "most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

...In 1988, the World Meteorological Assn. and the United Nations Environment Program joined forces to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action. The panel has issued three assessments (1990, 1995, 2001), representing the combined expertise of 2,000 scientists from more than 100 countries, and a fourth report is due out shortly. Its conclusions - global warming is occurring, humans have a major role in it - have been ratified by scientists around the world in published scientific papers, in statements issued by professional scientific societies and in reports of the National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and many other national and royal academies of science worldwide. Even the Bush administration accepts the fundamental findings. As President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger III, said last year in a speech: "The climate is changing; the Earth is warming."
Yeah, but why can't the scientists come to a consensus? See, if I keep asking that question, it becomes self-validating. As for the exceptions that the Right clings to in order to create the impression that this almost universal agreement is somehow plagued by conflicting views and dissenting opinions, Oreskes gives us a useful historical analogy:

To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values. [...]

A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.
I don't think that Peggy Noonan, James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, Dick Cheney, et al, will necessarily remain resolute in their disbelief of the realities of global warming until the end as Sir Harold Jeffreys did. In fact, I'm not so sure that all of them are sincere in their agnosticism to begin with - many involved in the debate are actually motivated by nothing other than a reluctance to acknowledge, publicly, what they know to be the case privately. It's an acknowledgement that comes with certain costs - both political and monetary. Nevertheless, eventually, the evidence will overcome the ability to maintain even plausible deniability.

On the other hand, some political actors on the Right who insist on shouting down those who raise valid concerns about global warming probably fall into the true-believer category. Many of these people will be forced to confront the destructive repercussions of their previous adherence to a policy of belittling environmental causes. But as we all know, cognitive dissonance is a bitch. Which is where Peggy and her soothing ointment come in. Taking their cues, and salve, from Ms. Noonan and other snake oil purveyors, many will - properly anesthetized on their death beds -go down meekly swinging at phantom environmentalists and the cadre of "untrustworthy" scientists who should be blamed for failing to sufficiently convince them of something that they worked very hard to refute. The folks that politicized science will blame the scientists for the politicization.

Nice rhetorical trick really: Any wrongheaded opinions that I currently hold which are later proven to be wildly inaccurate are the fault of my opponents who I spent enormous amounts of time, energy and resources demonizing - portraying them as unhinged, fringe, treasonous and unfit to lead. The blame lies with them for not overcoming my attacks to persuade me of the errors of my ways.

Now that's personal responsibility.

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