Monday, November 8, 2010

Monday Phantasm Blogging: Apolitical Science

Due apologies for the lengthy quote, but David Roberts is making important points here that all would do well to embrace as elementary postulates of politics:

One problem is that the people pleading for a depoliticization of science tend to be characterological centrists (CCs). A CC is, by temperament, attached to his/her self-image as an independent thinker, thoughtful and nuanced, seeing both sides of the argument, not part of any team or "side," disgusted by unthinking partisans. CCs are strongly inclined to see political problems in terms of "extremes on both sides" polarizing and dumbing down the debate. The sweet light of reason and virtue, according to CCs, lies between the sides, or rather in new, "post-partisan" options that transcend the tired conventional debates.

... Politics, however, isn't like that, "marketplace of ideas" fantasies aside. It's not about determining who's right, or who's cleverest; it's about determining the distribution of society's resources, privileges, and responsibilities. It's about power.

The reality of contemporary American energy politics is awkward for CCs. The fact is that the Republican Party has become, for all intents and purposes, the political arm of the fossil-fuel status quo. The entrenched energy powers-that-be have marshaled the right's current vulgar anti-intellectualism in support of their continued privilege; to put it more bluntly, they have been and still are paying people on the right to lie about science and dupe the conservative base.

I'm not talking about climate sensitivities or hurricane frequency or sea-level projections or other areas of active scientific disputation. I'm talking about whether human beings are driving changes in the climate. That question is simply not in serious dispute in the relevant scientific disciplines. It has been confirmed by multiple lines of evidence, empirical and model-based, over many years. Curry and virtually every other credible climate scientist would no doubt agree. Yet Republicans have now made rejection of that root scientific consensus a litmus test, in keeping with their decades-long assault on America's institutions. Virtually every Republican candidate for Congress has denied the most rudimentary facts about climate change.
It's way past time to stop pretending there are "two sides" to climate science standing in delicate, staid equipoise. It's not like that. There is a side that wants to address its reality in some responsible fashion, and a side that brazenly lies in the service of perpetuating the status quo. Full stop.

Happy talk won't change it, nor will denial, nor will professorial fray-eschewing, nor will "framing." Matt Yglesias elaborates:
A different way of putting it would be à la Trotsky’s quip that you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. It’s possible to have meaningful dialogue about an issue on a technical “non-political” level if and only if the political system isn’t interested in the question.
The political system is deeply interested in carbon-intensive energy, and one of the sides has no qualms about distorting and obscuring the truth. Scientific experts can join the fight or see it lost.


Paul Sunstone said...

I don't know, Dale, when it comes to the question of whether human caused climate change is occurring, the sides seem pretty equal:

On the one hand, you have almost all the truth, logic, and weight of evidence...

On the other hand, you have almost all the lies, half-truths, and weight of funding.

Sure looks like the sides are intellectually and scientifically equal to me! What could be more obvious than their equality?

Sometimes I just don't follow your reasoning, Dale.

It's almost like you have a cultish attachment to reason and good judgement.

(Good post!)

Sean G said...

One thing that has really surprised me is how the number of people doubting man-made climate change has increased considerably since the release of "An Inconvenient Truth." I remember seeing that moving and thinking "Wow, the facts are all there in an easy to digest fashion," but apparently all it did was fuel the denying industry.

When you look at the arguments of deniers they are just ridiculous, based primarily on the "financial interest" Gore has in perpetuating the "myth." I'd love to hold up a chart to these people, showing them the average net worth of all climate scientists compared to the net of average energy executive. But of course, deniers clearly have no interest in science or facts, so I doubt it would help.

Dale said...

@Paul, what can I say? it's a weakness. And obviously I am part of the worldwide conspiracy to inconvenience the oil companies.

@Sean, I've had the same thought. The response to Gore's film was to double down with the frantic, non-stop lying. It's beyond depressing.

Paul Sunstone said...

I hadn't thought until now about the response to Gore's movie. But now that you've mentioned it, it does indeed seem the opposition double downed afterwards.

Sean G said...

I don't think it's just climate science that is being politicized, either. Economics, sociology, even biology, chemistry, and psychology are being disputed by Tea Baggers and even mainstream Republicans. Remember the Republican primary debate in '08, when asked who disputes evolution, and all candidates on the stage raised their hand? These people were running for President, for crying out loud, and it wasn't just Alan Keyes and Mike Huckabee suggesting that basically all scientific consensus was up in the air.

Dale said...

Sean, shhhhh, don't tell anyone because we're not supposed to notice, but Republicans and Teabaggers are the same people. Teabaggers might tend to scream more often, but on all the major and minor questions of the day, they're indistinguishable from Republicans, especially now that the Republican party has been so completely purged of its last few moderates.