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Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Climate denial is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg"

by digby

David Roberts at Vox makes a vitally important point in this piece about the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt's rejection of climate science. This is an even bigger problem than people realize:
The climate fight has long since moved past the stage when it was about the facts.

Allow me an analogy. Imagine you’re playing a basketball game. A member of the other team travels. The referee calls the travel, but the opposing player just shrugs and says, “I don’t care.” He refuses to surrender the ball and just keeps going. Then his team starts putting extra players on the court, fouling at will, and pelting your team with refuse. The referee continues calling violations, but the other team simply disregards him. They start appealing to their own referees, friends of theirs in the stands. “Bob says there was no foul.”

At that point, the dispute is no longer about what happened in this play or that play. The facts are not at issue. The dispute is over the authority of the referee. The question is whether both teams will honor the referee’s calls, and if not, how the game can be played at all and what “winning” means under the circumstances.

If it’s not obvious, the referee in this analogy is science.

When we say we “know” human beings are causing climate change, virtually none of us mean we know that in any direct way. Most of us don’t possess the skills to analyze primary data or construct climate models. What we mean is, “that’s what the scientists say.” We are implicitly appealing to the authority of scientists — of science itself.

We naive types like to think that this is how a modern society runs. We set up scientific institutions, governed by certain guild rules and norms regarding objectivity, reproducibility of results, peer review, etc. Those institutions gather and analyze knowledge and we collectively agree to grant them authority, to accept their results.

That is how we establish a common foundation of facts and understanding, without which it is virtually impossible to have coherent political debates.

Such knowledge-producing institutions — not only science, but also academia and journalism — are not immune to criticism, of course. And they are never entirely free of biases or error. Their procedures and results are always open to democratic dispute.

But absent some compelling reason to believe that those institutions have been corrupted or systematically distorted, we accept their results. Otherwise, epistemological chaos ensues, persuasion becomes impossible, and politics devolves into a raw contest of power.

Conservatives have never established any serious corruption or wrongdoing in the institutions and norms of climate science. All they have are wild conspiracy theories about hoaxes and grant money. All they have are appeals to counter-authorities, members of the conservative establishment largely operating outside mainstream scientific institutions. Like the basketball team ignoring the referee, they have simply chosen not to accept the results of climate science.

Restating, underscoring, or even strengthening those scientific results won’t solve that problem. The results already come from multiple fields, are reinforced by multiple lines of evidence, and have been vetted (extremely vetted, you might say) by several extended, multi-layered review processes. Collectively, we don’t know how to “know” anything more confidently than we know this stuff.

If someone chooses to simply reject those scientific institutions, procedures, and results, then piling on more facts is beside the point. It’s not about facts any more, it’s about the authority of the institutions.

Climate denial has had, and will continue to have, dire results, producing real suffering for real people.

But in a sense, climate denial is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. The right’s refusal to accept the authority of climate science is of a piece with its rejection of mainstream media, academia, and government, the shared institutions and norms that bind us together and contain our political disputes.

There's also a certain individualistic arrogance in our culture which says that nobody knows anything more than you do. It's that thing of wanting a president you'd like to have a beer with because you figure you could be president too. Maybe it's the special snowflake theory coming home to roost --- everyone thinks they're just as smart as Einstein and anyone who says Einstein knew more than the average person is a smug elite who's trying to insult the common man.

The referee, in other words, is just another know-it-all who thinks he's better than the players.

On an institutional level, we've been watching this happen for a while. Recall that one of the quotes that animated the left over the past decade and a half was this one:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Nobody believes anyone in authority anymore Even the most basic facts are in dispute. We have a leader who completely disdains the truth and tells his followers to disdain it as well. I don't know how it all ends but I do know that the loss of an agreed upon reality is causing all these end-times conspiracy theories. And that's not a good sign.