A Tale of Two Opinions
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) A favourite technique of the right wing seems to be to attempt to influence public opinion by pretending that there is a serious debate on a subject of importance when in fact there isn’t.
An obvious example of that tactic is the right wing’s insistence that the question of anthropogenic climate change is a controversial issue; that there is genuine disagreement as to whether human activity is contributing to climate change. Not that they’d ever admit it, but even that position represents a retreat from their original argument that climate change (the phenomenon formerly known as “global warming”) simply didn’t exist outside of the fevered imaginations of leftist socialist tree hugging alarmists. When the elephant in the room started to fart and trumpet loud enough that its existence could no longer be ignored or denied, the argument became: Sure the climate is warming up, but it’s part of a natural cycle; dumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has no effect on the planet. And, of course, that “argument” came from politicians who, entirely coincidentally I’m sure, accepted huge contributions from Big Oil and, also coincidentally, voted to give those very companies billions of dollars annually in corporate welfare. Where that spurious argument did not come from was any actual climate scientist.
The level of public discussion actually included everyday conservatives pointing to every record snowfall and unseasonably cold day and shouting out that here was evidence that global warming was a liberal hoax. Rather than becoming involved in a hopeless attempt to explain the distinction between climate and weather, or to explain how planetary warming could lead to anomalous weather events in some areas, climate scientists started to use the phrase “climate change” to make the truth a little easier to grasp. Still, in an attempt to demonstrate to the public at large that there was a serious debate on the issue, at one point the shills for Big Oil managed to put together a list of “scientists” who held that there was no such thing as human generated climate change. It took about twenty-four hours for that ploy to be exposed as a fraud. Among the deniers were high school science teachers who had never published in peer-reviewed journals and a wide selection of experts in fields like anthropology and dentistry. What was absent was any representation of climate scientists. Despite the rhetoric, there has rarely been, at any time in history, so solid a consensus among scientists; only crackpots and non-experts dispute anthropogenic climate change in 2016. And conservative politicians who have sold their constituents a bill of goods.
As far back as 2001, actual climate scientists published their consensus and their scientific opinion on climate change in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its conclusions were summarised as follows:
- The global average surface temperature has risen 0.6 ± 0.2 °C since the late 19th century, and 0.17 °C per decade in the last 30 years.
- “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities, in particular emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.
- If greenhouse gas emissions continue the warming will also continue, with temperatures projected to increase by 1.4 °C to 5.8 °C between 1990 and 2100. Accompanying this temperature increase will be increases in some types of extreme weather and a projected sea level rise. The balance of impacts of global warming become significantly negative at larger values of warming.
These findings were and continue to be recognised by the national science academies of all industrialised nations. Since then, climate change has become more pronounced and the scientific consensus has become a virtually unanimous voice. There is, in other words, no meaningful debate.
Nevertheless, people with a vested interest in maintaining the current level of hydrocarbon consumption insist that there is a genuine debate to be had and insist that no serious action be taken until the “controversy” is resolved. That technique is known by logicians and rhetoricians as “the fallacy of the middle ground”. That logical fallacy is the mistake of believing or asserting that if there are two sides to a dispute or two competing opinions, the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle between the two opinions. While that may be true on some occasions, and while it may seem intuitively democratic and fair, it is an affront to critical thinking. The tactic employed here is to stake out a position absolutely contrary to reality and try to force people to move away from the truth and toward an artificial middle ground.
However, simply asserting something does not give the assertion legitimacy or any intellectual standing. Despite the right wing’s anti-intellectualism and dismissal of expertise as elitism, an expert opinion caries more weight than an uneducated, unsupported claim. That is most particularly true when we are speaking of scientific propositions being contradicted by insisting that anybody’s unsupported opinion is as valid as a scientific conclusion.
There is no serious debate on climate change. There are scientific conclusions, and there are uninformed opinions and wishful thinking based on, of all things, political views. That is not a debate. The only debate is how to deal with the reality that the world is facing a clear and present danger that we continue to exacerbate while we keep our heads in the sand. And we do that so the most profitable corporations in the history of the world can continue to increase their revenues and power, and collect more billions of welfare dollars, courtesy of the politicians they own.
Another example of the technique of insisting there is a controversy where none exists is the increasingly nonsensical insistence on the part of conservative, and especially evangelical, Christians that creationism (or its uptown cousin, intelligent design or ID) should be taught along side evolution as a competing scientific theory. Their argument is simply this: Evolution is a theory; so is ID. They should have equal prominence in schools, and refusing to teach ID on an equal footing is one more example of the modern persecution of Christians and Christianity.
This, of course, is another non-debate. The fact that it is even discussed is evidence of the lack of education of the ID proponents; they don’t understand what, in science, a theory actually is. Having read little but publications that offer theories like: Elvis is alive and living on life support in a cryogenic chamber in Area 51, or President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim plotting the destruction of America, or the moon landings were faked by Stephen Spielberg as a final project to graduate from film school, they don’t understand what a real theory is. They don’t understand that a scientific theory is an explanation of phenomena; an explanation that has been examined, scrutinised, and subjected a series of repeatable experiments and has survived all attempts to falsify it. A scientific explanation is only considered to be a theory if it is testable by experiment or other empirical method. And those tests must, to be valid, be attempts to disprove or falsify the proposed explanation (or, in scientific jargon, the hypothesis); it is easy to find evidence to support a hypothesis but for the hypothesis to become accepted as a theory, it must survive every attempt not to prove it, but to falsify it.
Evolution is a theory. Anthropogenic climate change is a theory. Gravitation is a theory. Even the existence of atoms and subatomic particles is a theory. In fact, most of those things are looked at as facts by any educated person. They are called theories simply because explanations of phenomena can always be refined and tweaked; to call them facts would be sloppy science. Intelligent design, in contrast, doesn’t even qualify as a hypothesis. It is merely an assertion based on an interpretation of a compilation of folk tales told by illiterate late Neolithic middle eastern nomadic goat herders and written down some time over two thousand years ago. To call it a theory is to misunderstand and misuse the word.
At first glance, it is bewildering that scientific questions are political debates with sides lining up along the liberal/conservative division. But when one considers that the denial of human caused climate change is supported by the same people and for the same reason that they denied the connection between tobacco smoke and lung disease, it becomes a little clearer. Their phony arguments are sponsored by industry and insisted upon because doing so makes right wing politicians a lot of money. The same is true of the refusal to make any real attempt to stem the flood of deaths by gunshot; politicians have been paid to insist that guns don’t kill people.
The outlier here is the insistence on the propagation of intelligent design as science. Nevertheless, there is a political element in that phony debate; conservative and evangelicals Christians, the proponents of ID, tend to be on the right of the political spectrum, so conservative politicians find themselves pandering to their crackpot notions in an effort to ingratiate themselves. It is cynical in reasonably rational politicians, and in the devout, it is simply one more example of the religious right’s constant pressure to undermine democracy and create a Christian theocracy.
Critical thinking, self education, broad reading, and constant vigilance are all needed to push back against the forces that would twist the facts to fit a political agenda. I believe very strongly that, rather than expend enormous amounts of money and energy to teach particular doctrines in schools, there should be a combined effort, from both sides of the political spectrum, to include critical thinking as an integral part of the curriculum. When rational scepticism, an understanding of rhetoric, recognising sophistry and logical fallacies are all part of the arsenal of students it would be interesting to see how many of these idiotic non-debates simply fizzle and disappear.