Philosopher says global warming is "truth"

I did a major in philosophy way back in my student days and I have had papers on mainstream philosophical topics published in the academic journals so this amused me.  Good philosophers -- and by that I mean analytical philosophers -- are great critics.  They tear every statement apart in an effort to get clarity about a field of discourse.  They would laugh at simple acceptance of authority as a criterion of truth.  Yet in his discussion of truth below this galoot does precisely that.  All his erudition crumbles before his credulity.  He thinks he can detect the truth about global warming just by checking what the authorities say.  He would have been a good Catholic in Galileo's day.  Any thought that he might check the facts of the matter is clearly alien to him.  He figuratively refuses to look through Galileo's telescope.  He is not even a philosopher's anal orifice.  Has he even heard of epistemology?

By Lee McIntyre

To see how we treat the concept of truth these days, one might think we just don’t care anymore. Politicians pronounce that global warming is a hoax. An alarming number of middle-class parents have stopped giving their children routine vaccinations, on the basis of discredited research. Meanwhile many commentators in the media — and even some in our universities — have all but abandoned their responsibility to set the record straight. (It doesn’t help when scientists occasionally have to retract their own work.)

Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were later subject to correction by reason and evidence. But we have reached a watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than intuition is truly in peril.

It’s not just garden-variety ignorance that periodically appears in public-opinion polls that makes us cringe or laugh. A 2009 survey by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59 percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.

As egregious as that sort of thing is, it is not the kind of ignorance that should most concern us. There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.

That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.  The strategy is to say, "I refuse to believe this," and then filibuster in the court of public opinion.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the "science wars" were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known "Sokal affair" in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

"Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?," Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. "Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?"

"But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists," the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, "… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind."

That is the price one pays for playing with ideas as if doing so has no consequences, imagining that they will be used only for the political purposes one intended. Instead, the entire edifice of science is now under attack. And it’s the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the left pays homage, who will probably bear the brunt of disbelief in climate change.

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign. Sadly, that strategy has largely worked, and we today find it employed by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle organization advocating that "intelligent-design theory" be taught in the public schools as balance for the "holes" in evolutionary theory, and the Heartland Institute, which bills itself as "the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change."

What do such academically suspect centers have to offer by way of peer-reviewed, scientifically reputable evidence? Almost nothing. But that is not the point. The strategy of willful ignorance is not to fight theory with theory and statistic with statistic. It is instead to say, "I refuse to believe this," and then filibuster in the court of public opinion. It is not crackpot theories that are doing us in. It is the spread of the tactics of those who disrespect truth.


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