I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.
The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:
The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.
An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.
Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:
The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.
As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.
I very rarely republish articles from other writers verbatim here, but this piece from Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia makes some very good points about the true roots of the climate-change controversy. I’m not on board with everything Hamilton advocates here, but I think he makes a useful point about the climate-change controversy — it’s really about political ideology, not about science. He also draws an interesting parallel with the controversy over Einstein’s general theory of relativity when it first came out. So I thought it would be useful to republish the entire article — with permission. This piece comes via The Conversation.
Nature v technology: climate ‘belief’ is politics, not science
It is hard to imagine a scientific breakthrough more abstract and less politically contentious than Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet in Weimar Germany in the 1920s it attracted fierce controversy, with conservatives and ultra-nationalists reading it as a vindication of their opponents – liberals, socialists, pacifists and Jews. They could not separate Einstein’s political views – he was an internationalist and pacifist – from his scientific breakthroughs, and his extraordinary fame made him a prime target in a period of political turmoil.
There was a turning point in 1920. A year earlier a British scientific expedition had used observations of an eclipse to provide empirical confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that light could be bent by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Little known to the general public beforehand, Einstein was instantly elevated to the status of the genius who outshone Galileo and Newton. But conservative newspapers provided an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists with an axe to grind, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment among those predisposed to it.
In a similar way today, conservative news outlets promote the views of climate deniers and publish stories designed to discredit climate scientists, all with a view to defending an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe. As in the Wiemar Republic, the effect has been to fuel suspicion of liberals and “elites” by inviting the public to view science through political lenses.
At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend:
This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.
The controversy was not confined to Germany. In France a citizen’s attitude to the new theory could be guessed from the stance he or she took on the Dreyfus affair, the scandal surrounding the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of spying in 1894, whose fate divided French society. Anti-Dreyfusards were inclined to reject relativity on political grounds.
In Britain, suspicions were less politically grounded but relativity’s subversion of Newton was a sensitive issue, leading Einstein to write an encomium for the great English scientist prior to a lecture tour.
Like Einstein’s opponents, who denied relativity because of its perceived association with progressive politics, conservative climate deniers follow the maxim that “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”. Scientists whose research strengthens the claims of environmentalism must be opposed.
Conservative climate deniers often link their repudiation of climate science to fears that cultural values are under attack from “liberals” and progressives. In Weimar Germany the threat to the cultural order apparently posed by relativity saw Einstein accused of “scientific dadaism”, after the anarchistic cultural and artistic movement then at its peak. The epithet is revealing because it reflected anxiety that Einstein’s theory would overthrow the established Newtonian understanding of the world, a destabilisation of the physical world that mirrored the subversion of the social order then underway.
Relativity’s apparent repudiation of absolutes was interpreted by some as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay. There could not have been a worse time for Einstein’s theory to have received such emphatic empirical validation than in the chaotic years after the First World War.
Although not to be overstated, the turmoil of Weimar Germany has some similarities with the political ferment that characterises the United States today – deep-rooted resentments, the sense of a nation in decline, the fragility of liberal forces, and the rise of an angry populist right. Environmental policy and science have become battlegrounds in a deep ideological divide that emerged as a backlash against the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Marrying science to politics was a calculated strategy of conservative activists in the 1990s, opening up a gulf between Republican and Democratic voters over their attitudes to climate science. Both anti-relativists and climate deniers justifiably feared that science would enhance the standing of their opponents. They responded by tarnishing science with politics.
Einstein’s work was often accused of being un-German, and National Socialist ideology would soon be drawing a distinction between Jewish and Aryan mathematics. Although anti-Semitism plays no part in climate denial, “Jewish mathematics” served the same political function that the charge of “left-wing science” does in the climate debate today.
In the United States, the notion of left-wing science dates to the rise in the 1960s of what has been called “environmental-social impact” science which, at least implicitly, questioned the unalloyed benefits of “technological-production” science. Thus in 1975 Jacob Needleman could write:
Once the hope of mankind, modern science has now become the object of such mistrust and disappointment that it will probably never again speak with its old authority.
The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute – the leading denialist organisation that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy – has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist.
The association between “left-wing” opinion and climate science has now been made so strongly that politically conservative scientists who accept the evidence for climate change typically withdraw from public debate. So do those conservative politicians who remain faithful to science.
The motives of Einstein’s opponents were various but differences were overlooked in pursuit of the common foe. Today among the enemies of climate science we find grouped together activists in free market think tanks, politicians pandering to popular fears, conservative media outlets like the Sunday Times and Fox News, a handful of disgruntled scientists, right-wing philanthropists including the Scaifes and Kochs, and sundry opportunists such as Christopher Monckton and Bjorn Lomborg.
While Einstein’s theory posed no economic threat and industrialists were absent from the constellation of anti-relativity forces, the way in which climate denial was initially organised and promoted by fossil fuel interests is now well-documented. In the last several years, climate denial has developed into a political and cultural movement. Beneath the Astroturf grass grew.
This is an edited extract from Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton, published by Allen & Unwin.
Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
However, I’m meditating on a somewhat different way to articulate it. I should say that I don’t think this controversy is essentially about science. I’m not persuaded by ill-informed or politically motivated assertions, but I don’t use terms like “hoax,” “anti-science,” “pseudo-science,” or “denialism” in connection with the argument.
My current thinking is the following:
The climate change controversy is about a high-stakes struggle between science in the service of eco-socialism and misinformation in the service of free-market fundamentalism.
I’m engaged in an ongoing development of my thinking on this topic and will no doubt circle back to it. But I just wanted to pin down that idea.
Recently I’ve been writing a series of columns on climate change over at ThomasNet Green & Clean. Although I do talk about the scientific arguments around human-caused global warming, I’m also interested in this issue as a social controversy, that is, what is it that drives people to one side or the other of the question? (Photo: Power plant, Finland. Credit:eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0)
Some readers were frustrated with me because I took a more or less neutral stance. Not that I have no opinions about climate change. It’s just that my purpose in this case is to try to shed some light on the controversy as a controversy. Here is a key excerpt:
Grappling on the global-warming battlefield are two parties in a high-stakes political conflict: On the extreme ends of the global warming controversy, believers accuse skeptics of pushing “free-market fundamentalism”; skeptics accuse believers of pushing “eco-socialism.”
According to one narrative, market fundamentalists and corporate interests are funding an intentionally-deceptive propaganda campaign against the concept of human-caused global warming to keep business free from regulatory interference…
According to the opposing narrative, communism has reformulated itself as a leftist environmental movement bent on establishing a world government and destroying free-market capitalism.
Yesterday I reviewed an informative presentation by John P. Abraham, associate professor in the school of engineering of St. Thomas University in Minnesota. In his presentation, “A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton,” Abraham offers a point-by-point rebuttal/refutation of claims made in a presentation he attended by Christopher Monckton, in which Monckton presented arguments against anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW), that is, the idea that human activity is causing an increase in global temperatures resulting in dangerous climate change.
Though long (it’s a 73-minute Flash presentation with voiceover), Abraham’s critique of Monckton is well worth reviewing, especially if you’ve been wondering about the emerging criticism of AGW and the general scientific consensus on climate change.
[Update added 16 July 2010]: A reader (see his comment below) has kindly pointed me to Monckton’s response to Abraham’s presentation. This is in PDF format and is very long — his answer is in the form of a series of questions (500 of them). See “Response to John Abraham, by Christopher Monckton.”
I have to say that, although I tend to agree with the consensus position in this case, just because most or even all of the experts in a certain field believe the same way, I don’t think others should be obligated to follow the crowd. And those who do accept the consensus point of view should be willing to keep their convictions on the table and to re-examine matters when new information becomes available.
To say that those who question claims of climate-change are “anti-science” or to call them “deniers” (as if their challenges were somehow akin to denials of the Holocaust) is disingenuous and counter-productive. It gets people arguing about all the wrong things, instead of communicating and working on problems.
In the case of the challenges to the climate-change consensus, science itself is not being called into question. The real issues have to do with things like politics, public policy, economic philosophy, and ideology. If people’s livelihoods and the well-being of their descendants are in play, isn’t it reasonable to allow them to call into question the conclusions and policy implications of those who evoke climate science as justification for their policy recommendations?
Also, it’s reasonable to point out that scientists themselves are humans with their own foibles, and while for the most part they might believe they are carrying out their work according to well-established principles and sound procedures, some of them have shown themselves to be influenced by self-interest, greed, and ideological leanings. So if their work is financed with public resources and being used to influence policy, isn’t it reasonable to expect their work – and especially their statements about its implications – to stand up to public scrutiny?
If researchers and institutions are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real danger, then it would behoove them to find ways to present the evidence in an accessible way, rather than just sticking their noses in the air and spouting arrogant put-downs of those that raise questions.
That brings me to the value of John P. Abraham’s presentation.
I found Abraham’s presentation reasonable and level-headed (see one of his slides to right). He refrains from personal attacks. Abraham analyzes Monckton’s scientific references, charts, and assertions in detail. Where available, he examines the data sources for Monckton’s charts and the papers he references. He even wrote to the authors of many of the original papers to ask for clarification when needed and shows their replies in his presentation.
Abraham’s presentation is really produced as a point-by-point refutation of Monckton, but along the way you learn a lot about climate change and the associated data. Pretty easy to follow, for a non-specialist reader with a fair understanding of science.
“My goal,” he says, “is to show people how they can learn about the scientific understanding on their own.”
The questions he addresses include:
Has Al Gore really overestimated the future sea-level rise by 100 times, and is it really true that sea levels are not rising?
Are polar bears in the Canadian Beaufort Sea really endangered by warming temperatures or not?
Was there a medieval warming period comparable to that taking place today, and did the IPCC “erase” that medieval warming period from its historical climate data?
Do IPCC’s climate sensitivity estimates really rest on just 4 scientific papers, rather than 2,500?
Have average temperatures actually been going down, contradicting IPCC projections?
Is there really no evidence for any catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change anywhere in the world?
Is it really true that increase in CO2 levels is an effect of warming rather than a cause, and is it really true that CO2’s effect on global temperature is negligible?
Is the extent of arctic sea ice actually remaining steady rather than declining?
Has the Greenland ice sheet really been increasing rather than decreasing?
Is it really true that the Himalayan glaciers have not been retreating?
Is it really true that oceans are not heating up?
Is it really true that global warming is caused by increased solar activity, rather than human activities?
One of the great challenges for an observer of public discourse these days is getting a clear, unbiased statement of both sides of an argument. People have powerful motivations to articulate only their opinion and trash the other side — see my previous entry, “Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation.”
So it was refreshing to come across the infographic linked below from Information Is Beautiful. The graphic provides a reasonable, neutral juxtaposition of both sides in the climate debate. (Click the image to see it full-size.)