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the most absolute way to lose credibility

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now I know not buy a used car from this guy

now I know not buy a used car from this guy

Daniel Dennett, in his most recent writings, excerpted in the second issue of The new philosopher (a mag which will be a part of my regular reading from now on) made this interesting point:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence.

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning).

Dennett goes on to prove the point with some examples. He performs a useful service here, for “surely” and similar terms like “clearly” seem anodyne enough to pass under our radar. The term “absolutely, not so, and as such, it’s far less sophisticated. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signposts for BS that we have, and it should send any worthwhile skeptic’s antennae bouncing off the ceiling. The anti-vaccination guru screams that vaccination is absolutely the worst medical intervention in human history, the creationist that evilution is absolutely contrary to their god’s plan, and the climate-change denier asseverates that there’s absolutely no credible evidence…

Step no further, for here lurks the big bad demon of absolutely committed ideology. It’s not the sort of term you read in the philosophical articles Dennett has been targeting, but of course it’s everywhere on the internet, and in the generally unsophisticated arena of political debate.

So I was amused to hear our current human rights commissioner Tim Wilson falling into the trap, like a drunken stumblebum falling off a well-signposted cliff. Wilson was on a panel of the ABC’s current affairs program The drum, and one of the topics discussed was the impact that the anti-vaccination movement was having on the incidence of measles in the USA. Wilson’s response was essentially pro-science, and so condemnatory of the anti-vaccination trend, though he also invoked the interesting argument that this was to protect children, while adults should be free to be as anti-science as they liked, and presumably free to promote the kind of anti-science agenda that’s causing all the problems in the first place.

But while it’s a thorny question as to whether or not good science should be enforced in some way, it was Wilson’s response to another panel commentator that really tickled me. The commentator pointed out the parallels between the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers – a fairly obvious point, I would’ve thought – and Wilson jumped in with the claim that ‘there are absolutely no parallels…’

Considering the fairly obvious parallels, Wilson’s remark (which he wasn’t able to elaborate on due to to it being made just as the final credits were about to roll), was a massive red flag, which immediately prompted me to check his bonafides on anthropogenic global warming.

But before checking out Wilson, let me state the parallels. First, both the vaccination debate and the AGW debate are loud and passionate. They also both exhibit the age-old truism that there’s an inverse relation between passionately-held positions and knowledge of the subject. Third and most important, they are both debates over what is essentially settled science. In the case of vaccination, the science tells us that vaccinations have led to the prevention and reduction of multiple diseases around the world over many decades, and that the negative effects of vaccination, if any, are far outweighed by the lives saved and the suffering minimised. In the case of AGW, climate scientists are in consensus that the globe is experiencing a warming event, and that this warming event, as measured through atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, is being significantly contributed to by human activity, and emissions of CO2 in particular.

Wilson’s impressive resumé here tells me that he’s ‘currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University’ and that he’s an ‘international public policy analyst specialising in international trade, health, intellectual property and climate change policy’, so he’s presumably well acquainted with climate science, which makes his ‘absolutely’ claim all the more odd. Digging deeper though, we find that for some time he was the policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a well-known free market think tank. Free marketeers are not always keen on accepting AGW, as it tends to interfere with business…

Wilson himself has been pretty careful about his public comments on AGW – at least I can’t find any outrageously silly remarks from him, but in 2010, while he was the IPA’s director of climate change policy, the organisation brought out a publication called Climate change: the facts, which is largely anti-climate science propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact that none of the contributors agree with the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, i.e. that AGW is a serious problem that we need to act upon. Some of the authors accept AGW but minimise its extent and its negative effects while others simply deny its existence. The publication includes as authors the wholly discredited Ian Plimer, and the quite literally insane Christopher Monckton, who has no scientific training whatsoever. It also includes ‘old guard’ scientists such as Garth Partridge, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter and William Kininmouth, all well into their seventies, and with links to the fossil fuel industries. One contributor, Willie Soon, has since been found to be a hireling of the fossil fuel lobby, to the tune of over $1 million. Others, such as Nigel Lawson, the eighty-something-year-old ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, just make the publication look more embarrassingly irrelevant than it might have been for propaganda purposes. One has to wonder why the book was published – it must surely have harmed the climate deniers’ cause amongst the fence-sitters at whom it was presumably targeted.

The quality of the work can be judged by its brief introduction, written by John Roskam, current executive director of the IPA. Take this excerpt:

We don’t believe ‘the science is settled’. As a think tank committed to the ideals of free and open enquiry and debate we are not afraid to stand against the mainstream of prevailing elite opinion.

Why is the word elite in there, in a book supposedly dedicated to debating the facts? Scientists are always debating, criticising each other’s published work, suggesting alternative interpretations of raw data – that’s a standard scientific process. Skepticism as to results is a sine qua non of scientific enquiry. But they never describe those they disagree with as elites. That would suggest that something else was at play. It seems particularly inappropriate when the writers themselves are Lords, ex-leaders of government, and linked to some of the world’s largest corporations, while those accused of elitism are usually living on an unreliable stream of grants and scholarships.

Welcome, though, to the world of climate change denial, which, far from presenting alternative facts, is largely fact-free. Although I’ve not read Climate change: the facts, I expect it will present the same variety of views, many of them contradicting each other, that Naomi Klein describes in the first chapter of her book on the politics of climate change, This changes everything. Her description – which hits you like an icy cold shower – is of a conference dedicated to climate change denial run by the USA’s Heartland Institute, another right-wing think tank, though much bigger and more bullish than the IPA. And surprise surprise, a number of the Australian book’s contributors were speakers at that conference. As it turns out, right-wing think tanks are almost solely responsible for the slew of anti-AGW propaganda that assails us today, and of all the contentious scientific issues, this one divides most neatly along politico-ideological lines.

So this helps to explain why Tim Wilson says he finds ‘absolutely no parallels’ between AGW and the vaccination ‘debate’. For him, though not for climate scientists, the science is not settled. But, being educated on the matter, he also knows that what he wants to be true, really isn’t. So, to cover what he knows to be bullshit, he resorts, quite unthinkingly, to the word ‘absolutely’. What a fine mess bad faith gets people into, and how painfully obvious it all is.


Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm

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