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Worlds Apart: how (and why) politics tries to divide science

February 13, 2011

Blog debates often throw up the kind of truism that conceals rather than reveals. I was batting away in the Guardian the other day when someone took exception to the common assertion that climate change denial or support embodies a highly polarised, and almost compulsory, right-left political demarcation. Here’s how it was put, and very reasonable it appears at first sight:

…the world is not just left or right. There are a myriad of shades in between and peoples opinions vary in spite of political leaning.

kennymac825 (posting in the Guardian’s Will Carbon Nation succeed where An Inconvenient Truth failed?)

It is true there are shades of opinion, but climate change discussions – and the film Carbon Nation – seek to address the vocal minority of politically motivated climate change deniers who are dominating the debate – and those deniers are more or less exclusively right-wing, and fairly extreme at that: Beck, Palin, Monckton, Limbaugh, Klaus, Griffin…there are many more, but you’d be hard to find anyone supporting the denialist arguments who was even vaguely associated with the left.

The political divide is built-in to the narrative. In that debate, the denial always seems to be based on a convenient conflation between science and politics, where climate science, because of the social (and socialist) implications, is itself deemed ideological. Politicisation is also required because if you are to dismiss climate science without having better science at your disposal, the only other means for dismissal is ideological – sometimes economic, other times conspiratorial.

Of course, we all know ‘real’ science can’t be ideological, so the perverse hoop that deniers jump through is to assume that the science itself must be tainted by ideology and can therefore be considered suspect. Science can be attacked as corrupt, scientists smeared as self-serving conspirators faking their results to suit a secretive politial agenda, and climate change dismissed as a scare story…none of which changes the laws of physics or the rigours of the scientific method (the same method deniers have consistently failed to bring to bear, because try as they might to discredit the anthropological origins of climate change, in three decades not a single sceptic or denier has been able to posit a credible alternative theory to explain the causes of our changing climate, let alone demonstrate it through scientific experiment).

Despite the growing physical (empirical) evidence, which is now frighteningly compelling, the contrarians still maintain their foolishness, entrenching it ever deeper in the politics of climate change. The results of scientific enquiry cannot be changed by political opinion, but that doesn’t stop deniers trying, and when they fail – and they’ve been failing for 30 years, as evidenced by the growing political, economic and scientific consensus – they simply dig deeper trenches and resort to more desperate tactics, like using threats of legal action against scientists in a vain attempt to suppress them and their work.

The growing desperation of denial is quite clear, as it is clear that nothing will change the minds of those who would prefer to believe Glenn Beck or ‘Bedwetter’ Monckton, rather than the laws of physics. It is ironic that the US, already facing many domestic and global problems, should be so intransigent and foolish as to compound their problems by polarising debate with lies, distortions and the most blatantly venal, self-serving behaviour. For this film to even heal the tiniest portion of this divided nation seems terribly unlikely.

I suppose that by writing this, I should also ask the other question: what, if anything, will convince America of the danger it is in, the danger we are all in? What will make them understand the inevitable blame that the US will garner by being so irresponsible when the impact of that irresponsibility will be visited on us all? The answer, I regret to say, is disaster; only when climate change is writ large across the American psyche by floods, fuel shortages, economic collapse, growing poverty and unemployment, food riots and civil disorder – only then will the US belatedly realise that there is always an invoice to be paid for freedom, and the demand is for responsibility.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2011 4:14 pm

    I don’t think anything will change their minds. I feel that the political argument is lost. The Democrats may be in power technically but the Republicans are still pulling most of the strings and Obama is ineffective whether it is his climate policy or health care.

    So I feel the US will wander along pretty much as is dealing reactively to problems as they arise for as long as the can.

  2. Watching the Deniers permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:54 pm

    In Australia the debate on a price on carbon price has started once again.

    And of course, people’s political views shape their opinion:

    Question: do you support a price on carbon?

    Greens – 75% yes
    Labor – 59% yes (centrist party)
    Liberal – 30% yes (conservatives)

    http://www.theage.com.au/national/coalition-surges-to-decisive-lead-20110213-1as26.html

  3. Watching the Deniers permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:58 pm

    I wrote a not dissimilar piece last year:

    Behind the great firewall of denial

    http://watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/behind-the-great-firewall-of-denial-the-conservative-debate-on-epistemic-closure-and-climate-change/

    “…One is reminded strongly reminded not to dismiss “conservatives” as fools, ill-informed or incapable of rational debate. It is the extreme fringe that seeks to drown out the voices of moderation. Both sides of the political divide have something to offer to the debate: the pragmatic tradition of Edmund Burke in understanding society as an organic entity and valuing institutions does not need to conflict with an intelligent response to climate change. Indeed, this is what rational conservatism is about.

    Science is a four hundred year old tradition worth preserving. Currently it is under “attack” by ideologues. Our democratic institutions and traditions are worth conserving. Conservatism has traditionally been wary of stoking of the “passions of the mob” via ideology. The denial movement is ideologically based. It circumnavigates the scientific process and engages the worst aspects of peoples psychology: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    The denial movement tears down societies trust in science; it provokes individuals to send scientists death threats; it questions Enlightenment values such as the use of evidence and reason in debate.

    Climate change represents a major disruptive force in both political and economic terms. That elements of the conservative movement would ignore these threats is a tragedy.

    Perhaps the best way to advance the debate is to reach out to those self proclaimed “liberals” and “conservatives” who understand and accept the science of global warming, and are prepared to debate the appropriate policy responses.

    E pluribus unum: out of the many different voices and perspectives, we can formulate an appropriate response to mitigating and adapting to climate change.”

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