A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO AGW DENIAL

ABSTRACT: Of the things I care least about, AGW is in a dead heat with what really happened on 9/11. But because, as George W. Bush put it, either you’re with the terrorists or you’re against them, I think I’d rather be interestingly wrong than politically correct. Accordingly I rehearse what I take to be the case for AGW denial, masquerading – so as to continue to get dinner invitations – as tongue in cheek.

I think I was only about six or seven, but I remember it quite clearly. We were sitting at the dinner table and my sister, who was a few years older than me, asked my parents whether we Jews believe in an afterlife. I don’t remember their answer, but I do remember thinking how strange it is to ask someone else to tell me what I believe. And yet that’s precisely what I’m about to do.

Unlike Christianity or Islam, Judaism is a non-doctrinal religion. Moreover, you don’t decide to be a Jew. You’re a Jew just in case, well, you are one. Your beliefs have nothing to do with it. But one might decide, for reasons having nothing to do with what she believes, that it would be ‘cool’ to be, say, a Buddhist, or a Flat-Earther, or a white supremacist, or whatever, and only then enquire into what one needs to believe in order to count as such. Maybe it’s how they dress, or the music they listen to. Or just that anti-racists, for example, are so priggishly holier than thou. When it comes to identity politics, cool is cool. Rationale counts for naught. It’s all about image.

In any event, I decided – and I decided this sight unseen – that it would be cool to be a denialist, because for a philosopher, even bad press is better than what we typically get, which is no press at all. Of course I don’t mean I want to be a denialist tout court. I want to be selective. I want to deny something that would earn me a level of vilification that would make me cool, but not so vile that I’d never get another dinner invitation in this town. That’s why, tempting as it was, the Holocaust just wasn’t an option.

I toyed for a while with the Warren Report, and then the moon landing. But none of my students would remember the Kennedy assassination. And claiming that that “one small step for mankind” was in an airplane hanger out in the desert somewhere would just make me one of those crazies. Having met some, I’ve decided crazy isn’t cool. Cool requires at least plausible deniability.

And so …? And so that’s why I’ve settled on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). One might have to be ignorant to be an AGW denier, but not necessarily crazy. And unlike defending pedophilia, AGW denial isn’t quite cringe-worthy enough that no one would want to have anything to do with me.

The only problem, as already noted, is that since I don’t know anything about AGW, I don’t know what I’m required to not believe about it. And so the objective of this present exercise is to repair that lacuna, cuz … well, it just won’t do to know nothing whereof one’s speaks with an air of great authority.

Accordingly, I preface the remarks that follow not with a pro-forma “I stand to be corrected”, but with a genuine one. Of course no such correction will alter my view. That’s just what it is to be a true believer. But the first step in getting the facts wrong is getting them right. And for some help with that, I’ll be forever in your debt.

* * *

I’m told that a denialist is someone who espouses a view that flies in the face of a recognized scientific consensus. First question: Why do I need to espouse my denial to qualify? Answer: Because denialism is now being cited as a hate crime. The mere having of the view that, for example, anyone with haggis on her breath should be killed, is only a thought crime. But as long as I keep my thoughts to myself, celebrants of Robbie Burns Day are in no danger. No danger no harm. No harm no foul.

Second question: A consensus recognized by whom? It can’t be those who subscribe to that consensus, because then anyone who denies what the Creation Scientists are telling us would count as a denialist. After all, they too see eye to eye with each other.

One could argue that Creation Science is a misnomer, because for them their Scripture trumps their otherwise being faithful to the so-called ‘scientific method’. But I’m not sure this will do. We all rely on a chain of doxastic trust. And presumably that reliance is a function of track record. Imagine someone who predicts the future with 100% accuracy, but no one can figure out how. You could stick to your principles and refuse to consult him. But that would just make you an idiot.

So if one has reason to believe that Scripture is testimony, and that that testimony has proven reliable in moral and historical matters – e.g. the Jubilee Laws and the Empty Tomb respectively – then why not trust what it says about cosmology?

Now don’t get me wrong, which of course you will. I’m not defending scriptural literalism here. I don’t need to. I only need to claim that one needn’t be crazy to give her Scripture its doxastic due.

But let’s not quibble about what counts as science. Let’s just say that by the ‘scientific consensus’ is meant whatever’s issued by those mainstream institutions from which we’re habituated to take our lead in matters pertaining to the material world. Whether we do so right-headedly or not, and how radically contingent that leaves our beliefs, is another matter, and one that need not delay us here.

That said, no one thinks these institutions are infallible. So nothing in the definition entails that the denialist must be mistaken. And so one can, without embarrassment, concede that some of the greatest contributors to our understanding of the world were, in their own times, denialists.

But that need in no way put the kibosh to the pejorative use of the term. Tomorrow it may turn out that Andrew Wakefield was right, that vaccinations can cause autism. But that won’t entitle him to an apology. A wrongful conviction is not an unjust conviction. Truth is always uncertain. As are the processes by which we try to have at it. But those processes are all we’ve got. And for the most part they’ve done us yeoman service, the odd outlier, like thalidomide, notwithstanding.

But that still doesn’t tell us from which particular scientific institutions we should be taking our lead. Think of the media. CNN touts itself as “the most trusted name in news”. But Fox claims only it is “fair and balanced.” Some swear by the one, others by the other. So shall we just say we each pick our reality and leave it at that?

We can certainly say it, but we can’t leave it at that, because our disparate realities impact on each other’s. Not always, but often enough. If I’m not vaccinating my kid, and yours is immune-compromised, our decisions are not so nicely compartmentalized. Though whether the same can be said about AGW we’ll have to see.

I mention CNN and Fox because for most of us the only way we can come to know which is the mainstream consensus, and which is the outlier, is via the media. Because you watch and read what you watch and read, you think that “Everyone knows that p.” But because I watch and read what I watch and read, I think that “everyone knows that not-p.” What can we say to each other other than what we do say, which is that “Everyone in the know knows that …”? If we disagree it can only be because one of us is not among those in the know.

I wouldn’t have thought this before I discovered that 9/11 Trutherism, which I’d always regarded as the outlier, is and apparently always has been, the majority view. Now whodathunkit?! Why was I so mistaken? Because I’d forgotten that the rest of the world isn’t tuned in to CNN. A good part of it is watching Al Jazeera.

As we’ll be discussing later, combating AGW is a collective action problem. Collective action problems are hard enough to overcome when we’re of a mind that there is a problem. Even where we’re not, a collective action problem needn’t be intractable, provided there’s the requisite critical mass of us who are of a mind. But we can’t commit to the cause if we can’t overcome this afore-noted skepticism.

And yet often enough we do commit, which means we do overcome it. How? By fiat. I believe most of what I’m told because if I didn’t I’d be frozen in stasis. And the proof that having these admittedly unjustified beliefs is better than suspending belief entirely is that the former has been naturally selected for and the latter selected against.

So in this strategic sense of justification, let it be granted that one is entitled, though by no means compelled, to believe what she’s been told, namely that 97% of scientists believe that AGW is real.

* * *

Third question: 97% of which scientists? And fourth: Have they confirmed AGW themselves and independently, or do they merely believe it via the same means the rest of us do? After all, a computer scientist is a scientist, but what does she know about climatology? And if one climatologist is ratifying the findings of a colleague because the first has no reason not to trust the second, then a 97% consensus has no more probative force than would a minority report.

Let all this be granted. But so what?! Almost everything we believe is ultimately attributable to a very few people making some observations, a few more drawing inferences from those observations, a few more making inferences from those inferences, and so on. The further up the ladder we go the more our confidence hangs on the confidence we have, sight unseen, in the observations made and inferences drawn at every rung below. Pearls in, pearls out. Garbage in, garbage out. That’s just the dividends we reap, but also the dangers we incur, from the specialization of epistemic labor. It’s as they say: There’s no free lunch.

So let’s see what we’ve got. What we’ve got is that there’s a report on a report on a report, and so on … that there’s a consensus on there being a consensus on there being a consensus, and so on … about a chain of trust upon which some people, but not others, are prepared to rely … that delivers the verdict that AGW is real.

That, it seems to me, is hard to deny. And I do not deny it. Nor do I know of any AGW denier who does. The problem is, that’s just trivially true. Or as they say, that’s just trite but true.

* * *

But I can’t be a denialist without something to deny. So let’s give it another go.

By the ‘weather’ is meant what I need to know to plan my day. Flying the Pond aside, that means the behavior of the atmosphere – precipitation, wind, temperature, that sort of thing – within an hour’s drive of the local TV station. I’m told that none of these constituents is independent of the others. But for the sake of honing this discussion to our purposes, let’s confine ourselves to temperature.

We’ve only been able to take and record the temperature for a couple hundred years, and take and record it continuously rather than periodically for much less than that. Still, as with any non-monotonic function, we’re allowed, because we have no choice, to interpolate and extrapolate. And when we do, what we get is something akin to a row of shark’s teeth, jagged and nonsensical.

What we mean by climate, then, is taking these same measurements and averaging them over a period of, say, thirty years. Now as the cursor moves along, it still rises and falls. But failing some catastrophic event, like a comet strike or a Krakatoa, the jaggedness has almost entirely disappeared. At one point the average temperature over the fifteen years either side of the cursor was, say, twelve degrees. But one would have to move the cursor several decades to record an eleven or a thirteen.

So far we’ve been defining our climactic temperature as the average reading from one sensor located in the parking lot next to the local TV station. Now let’s average the average readings from all the sensors spread out across the county, being meticulous, in the positioning of these sensors, not to invite any biased sampling errors. Presumably the cursor will rise and fall even less erratically. And as we continue to spread our sensors further and further across the globe, what we should find, if the global climate is (what we’ll call) ‘stable’ – and putting the odd El Nino or La Nina aside – is something pretty close to dead flat.

But apparently we don’t. From the early 1800’s to the present, what we find – or more accurately what someone has found that someone has found that someone has found – is that the average global temperature has risen by at least one full degree. Of course whether it will continue to rise depends on what caused it to rise as it has, and whether that cause and effect is a monotonic function or a non-monotonic one. That is, does whatever caused this rise in temperature bear the seeds of its own reversal? And if so, at what point can we expect that reversal to kick in?

Note that in saying “whatever caused this” I mean to include the possibility of anthropogenesis, be it as only a contributing factor or even the sole one. For example, some people are optimistic that global temperatures will return to their pre-Industrial levels once we either exhaust the fossil fuels we’re currently converting to carbon dioxide, or kill ourselves off, whichever comes first. Though ‘optimistic’ might be a strange choice of words in this context.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an atheist. But I call myself a sympathetic atheist rather than an atheist simpliciter, because though I’d bet my immortal soul there is no God, I wouldn’t bet the family farm on it. Similarly, then, as a denialist I don’t think I’m required to rule out the possibility that global warming is real, and if it is, the possibility that that warming is anthropogenic. That would be the kind of epistemic hubris for which I rightly pasquinade my interlocutors.

What remains open to me, however, are the following options:

I could deny that as a matter of fact it’s real.

I could allow that it’s real but deny it’s anthropogenic.

I could try to assure my Chicken Little interlocutors that whether it’s real or not, it’s nothing to worry about. Or …

I could allow that there would be something to worry about were it not that Scripture has promised us a Second Coming. And that requires that we still be here to welcome it.

Needless to say I’m hoping I won’t be driven to this last option. And not only because as a Jew I’ve given up waiting for a First Coming let alone a second one. In any event, let’s see which of these options I should embrace.

I do worry, as do some of my fellow travelers, about how meticulous the positioning of these sensors have been not to invite a biased sampling error. But I’m prepared to accept on faith – the same faith that would allow me not to accept it – that over the past two hundred years the average global temperature has risen by a full degree.

Mind you, over the past hour it’s fallen by over eight degrees. What I need to know is why the average global temperature rising by one degree is a greater cause for concern than the local temperature dropping by eight. After all, not unlike sticks and stones and names, hurricane force winds may break my bones but climate will never hurt me. The answer, we’re told, is this:

Climate supervenes on weather. That is, there can be no change in the climate without a series of changes in the weather. But though a change in the climate can’t cause a change in the weather – that would violate the supervenience relation – its prognostication can simultaneously prognosticate changes in the weather. For example, in predicting seven years of drought, Joseph was simultaneously predicting the unlikelihood of rain next Wednesday. So if the Chicken Littlers are right that we’re in for a second degree of global warming over the next decade or so, then there are certain meteorological phenomena that can be anticipated with a reasonable degree of certainty. And some of these phenomena are indeed cause for concern.

Concern for whom? Let’s take a brief detour to see if we can answer that question.

* * *

Of the seven and a half billion people in the world, surely there exists at least one person – let’s call her Jane – who would like to end her life but lacks either the wherewithal or the courage to do so. It follows that, notwithstanding that the end of the world – by which we’ll mean the end of its anthropicity – would be a loss for the vast majority of its human inhabitants, there are some people – by which is meant at least one – for whom it would be a gain. Moreover this would be true pretty much regardless of how the world came to an end, in this anthropic sense, whether it be a planet-killing comet that gets us, nuclear Armageddon or, well, AGW.

One could hold that, notwithstanding she has a right to want to end her own life, not at the cost of ending everyone else’s. But this adds an extra premise to the story, which would have to be argued for independently. After all, David Hume argued that “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” If such a reason can be given, I’ve yet to hear tell of it, save that some people entertain some weird sentiment Hume calls ‘fellow-feeling’, a sentiment which Jane, apparently, does not entertain.

A fortiori, then, of the seven and a half billion people in the world, there exists at least one person – let’s call him Dick – who’d prefer to go on living, but whose quality of life, by his own measure – which is the only measure that respects him as an autonomous agent – would be enhanced, either by AGW itself, or by that of which AGW is an anticipated but autonomous effect. It follows then that, not unlike pretty much anything else that goes on in the world, AGW itself, or that which eventuates from it or in it, is destined to produce both losers and winners.

It may well be that, even over the short run, there’ll be more losers than winners. Or at least that those who’ll lose will lose more than those who’ll gain will gain. But what is that to Dick? It may even be that over the long run even Dick will lose. But what is that to Jane?

An individual can be mistaken about which of the two she’ll be. But that’s true of pretty much any choice one makes under one- or two-dimensional uncertainty. What follows, however, is that what, if anything, to do about AGW is a political decision, subject to the same forces at play in any other political decision, namely the interplay of conflicting interests. One can hope that someone else’s interests, as she herself sees them, will dovetail with one’s own. But to get in high moral dudgeon when hers don’t betrays the moral maturity of a three year old.

Now then, as any rational choice theorist will tell you, there’s often a radical disconnect between one’s declared preferences and her revealed ones. Which of the two are her real preferences? I’d go with the latter. So when someone tells me she’d prefer these ends but consistently pursues those instead, I’m inclined to suspect she doesn’t really prefer what she thinks she does.

But there’s an important caveat to this conclusion. I’d prefer to spend the afternoon cleaning up the neighborhood, if but only if enough of my neighbors join in. But if they won’t – and they won’t – then I’d prefer to watch the football game instead. This is what’s meant by a collective action problem. And the failure to resolve such problems produces what Garret Hardin has called “the tragedy of the commons”. So I can level no charge of hypocrisy at those who would do something about AGW but don’t, because in the absence of others following suit – which they won’t – their efforts would be wasted. This describes most of my colleagues. And probably yours too.

But there’s another reason why people who angst and bleat about AGW are behaviorally indistinguishable, apart from that angsting and bleating, from their denialist nemeses. They tell us that AGW is the most urgent problem facing the world today, and then they wonder why no one’s treating it as such. It’s because there isn’t a single person on the planet, themselves included, for whom doing something about AGW is anywhere near the top of her things-to-do-today list. If a comet were about to destroy the Earth in the next ten minutes, then I guess I’m going to meet my Maker with my schlong hanging out, because first I have to pee. Or pick up the kids from school. Or walk the dog. I may not bother to make the mortgage payment that’s due today. But other than that, yep, I think it’s pretty much business as usual.

A fortiori if I happen to work in the Patch. Because if it turns out we’ve got anything longer than ten minutes, say a couple of months, the bank’s not going to accept my “The End is Nigh” sandwich board in lieu of my next loan repayment.

The latest IPCC report gives us twelve years to mend our ways. Or else what? Or else we’ll bear the consequences of another twelve years delay, just as we’ve borne the consequences of the last twelve years delay. So maybe what I’ll deny is not so much global warming itself – though I want to retain the right to do so – nor that it’s anthropogenic – though I want to retain the right to deny that too – nor that it won’t have devastating consequences for some people – perhaps it already has. Maybe I’ll just say that doesn’t settle the issue of who, if anyone, should do what, if anything, about it.

Or maybe I’ll just say that, because it’s such an intractable collective action problem, no one is going to do anything about it. And that since no one’s going to do anything about it, it’s not, by definition, a problem. How not by definition? Because by a problem is meant something we might be able to do something about. Otherwise it’s just called a fact. But even an unpleasant fact – like that I’m going to die some day – doesn’t bear a whole lot of worrying about.

But I’m not sure I want to leave it at that. I think I do want to deny that it’s a fact. The world will come to an end sometime. And in all likelihood the anthropicity of the world sometime before that. But the end of the world has been predicted, much to the embarrassment of countless shamans, since we emerged from the cave, and I think there’s something to be said for a little induction.

“Ah, but this time it’s different.”

And yet it never is.

“Yes, but now we have the science to prove it.”

And what shaman thought he didn’t?

Is this just my veiled way of trusting that God is going to save us? I’m an atheist, remember. But let’s see.

Your scientific consensus, coupled with my command of collective action problems, delivers to us the inevitable end of the anthropic world. My pragmatic theory of truth can’t allow that. So either your science is wrong, or my understanding of collective actions problems is woefully inadequate. I know nothing about the former. I make my living from the latter. So you tell me which I’m likely to think is the culprit.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

* * *

If you can no longer parse an argument – or perhaps you never could – it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve never been able to run the ten-minute mile either. I’ve come to terms with that.

What does forfeit one’s membership in the conversation, however, is doing the Kellyanne Conway. To pivot is really just to have left the building.

I’m responsible for what I’ve said, not for what I meant, nor for what you’ve heard. My denialism can be associated with any number of mephistophilian objectives: the war on science, the alt-right, child pornography, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion … Or my interlocutors’ favorite: my being in the pay – I could only wish! – of Big Oil.

I’ll happily plead guilty to all of the above. (Well, except for Big Oil. They keep telling me the cheque is in the mail.) But not unlike the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, none of this has anything to do with the case, tra la!

Not unlike the ad hominem circumstantial or abusive, phrases like ‘the recognized scientific consensus’, or ‘the leading experts in’, are fit for rhetoric, but not for serious argumentation. If you’re going to use ‘urgent’ to mean something other than it does, you need to redefine it and then defend what you’re saying with it. If you think there’s an asymmetry between your epistemic protocols and those of your interlocutors, you need to identify that asymmetry without presupposing it. This is not to say your view couldn’t win the day. But it needs to win it, not just claim it.

We denialists – assuming I’ve succeeded in being one – have been as guilty as our interlocutors of making this debate into something so toxic that it’s no wonder neither of us can preach other than to the converted. So since I’m now their official spokesman, I’d like to propose we both wipe the venom from our spears and talk to rather than about each other.

Even if you have to fake it till you make it, do it. A little intellectual humility can go a long way towards making friends and influencing people, which presumably is what you’re after, especially the latter. Unless, of course, like the Almighty, you just want to bask in the splendor of your unassailable righteousness.

 

 

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