February 14, 2007

The right to be wrong: tolerating Holocaust deniers and global warming skeptics

Late last year "revisionist" historian David Irving was released from an Austrian prison after serving 13 months of a 3-year sentence. Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier and anti-semite, had violated Austria's 'Prohibition Statute' which forbids the trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust.

I am certainly no fan of Irving and his warped view of history, but I find it disquieting to know that one can still be jailed in a liberal democracy like Austria for being a prisoner of conscience. It appears that some countries find it necessary to ban the freedom to deny.

Irving may be using his credentials as an historian (whatever those 'credentials' may be at this point) to propagate disinformation, but he is within his rights to do so. Our society does not enforce the integrity of the memesphere through coercion. Moreover, Irving clearly subscribes to a certain belief structure. In a free society, we have no choice but to tolerate this sort of bullshit.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we can't rail against it. Even Deborah Lipstadt, an outspoken critic of Irving, was opposed to his imprisonment, noting "I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth."

It's all too easy to throw a hissy fit and throw people in jail when their views oppose your own, but this is exactly what is happening with Holocaust deniers. And disturbingly, it appears that the right to deny global warming is also in jeopardy. Like the war against Holocaust revisionists, there are those who would like to permanently silence the global warming skeptics. The fear and dread surrounding the climate change crisis had led to a religious-like fervor and the emergence of a new political correctness. Even more bizarre is that global warming skeptics are actually being compared to Holocaust deniers.

Take for example the recent outburst from journalist Ellen Goodman. "I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny," she proclaims, "Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future." Goodman and others would like to see this sort of memetic linkage stick, which would cause brains to automatically turn off and see emotions raised to the boiling point.

Climate change is now such a serious social issue that entire careers and reputations are at stake. Recently, Heidi Cullen of the The Weather Channel suggested that the American Meteorological Society revoke their "Seal of Approval" for any television meteorologist who expresses skepticism that human activity is creating a climate catastrophe. "Clearly, the AMS doesn't agree that global warming can be blamed on cyclical weather patterns," she says, "It's like allowing a meteorologist to go on-air and say that hurricanes rotate clockwise and tsunamis are caused by the weather. It's not a political statement...it's just an incorrect statement."

And just last week a dispute erupted in Oregon, where Gov. Ted Kulongoski has considered firing the state's climatologist George Taylor, who has said human activity isn't the chief cause of global climate change. "It seems if scientists don't express the views of the political establishment, they will be threatened and that is a discomforting thought," said Alabama state climatologist John Christie, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Indeed, the notion that certain lines of scientific inquiry be prohibited is unacceptable and runs against the spirit of academic due diligence. Part of the problem here is that bona fide research is often conflated with the malevolent work of the denial industry; there is a growing network of fake citizens' groups, extremists, and bogus scientific bodies who are claiming that the science of global warming is inconclusive. These groups, to no one's surprise, are the sorry spawn of corporations who have the most to lose in the struggle against greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon is one company that certainly comes to mind.

Again, like the Holocaust deniers, these groups are shielded by freedom-of-speech laws. At the same time these disinformation engines need to be exposed, and it is our responsibility as concerned citizens, writers and activists to make that happen. Scientists and highly influential figures also need to wade into the fray -- and they have. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has been tremendously influential, and groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists are working to reveal scientific abuses and interference.

Meanwhile, scientists and academics deserve to be protected from the perils of groupthink and "consensus science." Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), warns that "rational and open" discussion of climate change science that includes dissenting voices is in danger of being short-circuited at the expense of sound science and free speech. "It smacks to me of McCarthyism and big-brotherism and is completely antithetical to the scientific process and the American political philosophy of free speech," he says.

Attacking researchers who seek to challenge the status quo, aside from it being a witch hunt, may also work to the detriment of those concerned about the environment. If there are other factors and circumstances contributing to global warming we most certainly need to know about it.

The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion where 'climate contrarians' have been pegged as the new blasphemers. At its extreme, global warming skeptics may be at risk of being accused of crimes against humanity.

And it is here where I will close by making an important distinction. It is one thing for a scientist to continue to gather evidence, pose theories and work towards verification. It is another thing altogether for unscrupulous groups to like Exxon and corrupt politicians to add unwarranted noise and obstacles to the discussion. Politicians do not have the luxury of experimentation. Instead, they need to act and forge policy.

Consequently, politicians are by necessity held to a different standard. They have an obligation to parse through the noise and act in the public's best interest. In order for them to do so they must be informed by the best of what science has to offer.

And in order for there to be 'the best science' we have to give the scientific establishment the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to conduct sound and unhindered scientific investigations.

7 comments:

Jamais Cascio said...

No question -- Goodman's attempt to equate Global Warming denial with Holocaust denial is a serious violation of Godwin's Law.

I'm less certain about the problem with removing people from positions of authority regarding climatological science when they deny the reality of global warming. To me, it's less like jailing someone for their beliefs than like firing a bioscience teacher who embraces "Intelligent Design." It simply makes no sense to give someone an influential platform from which to spout harmful claims under the guise of science.

I do appreciate the effort you make to distinguish between scientists who use aggressive-but-appropriate scientific skepticism regarding global warming data (Roger Pielke, Jr. is an example here) and "scientists" who flatly refuse to be swayed from their belief that global warming is nonsense (Fred Hoyle is an example here).

I can't think of an example of a skeptic of the first sort being successfully attacked and/or fired, but I'm sure that it happens.

Martin Striz said...

I am certainly no fan of Irving and his warped view of history, but I find it disquieting to know that one can still be jailed in a liberal democracy like Austria for being a prisoner of conscience.

The anti-Nazi laws in Germany, Austria, France are much like the money that the US government gave to the families of 9/11 victims: an overreaction to an extreme situation. Never before had the gov given money to victims of any kind of attack. After all, if my home got robbed, I wouldn't expect a check from the local police department to cover the losses. But good old fashioned human empathy overtook reason in the wake of 9/11, and I think something similar happened in the wake of the Holocaust. As such, those laws are anachronistic today.

Take for example the recent outburst from journalist Ellen Goodman. "I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny," she proclaims...

While I agree that there's a fair amount of political bias in academia, she's right:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Instrumental_Temperature_Record.png

Global warming isn't a theory. It's a fact. Pure and simple. The degree to which humans are causing it is certainly up for debate, though.

What's scary is that the earth is a nonlinear system, with several positive feedback loops in place to magnify the effect of the warming: methane released from thawing tundra, increased evaporation of water from soil (water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas). That's something that even IPCC4 (so maligned as a political group) doesn't take into consideration.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has been tremendously influential

Too bad Al Gore was only an environmentalist while he wasn't in office. You'd think that the self-styled leader of the environmental movement might fight for Kyoto while he's Veep.

These groups, to no one's surprise, are the sorry spawn of corporations who have the most to lose in the struggle against greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon is one company that certainly comes to mind.

Yep.

There are crucial parallels between the the anti-global warming and anti-evolution movements: both are well-funded by non-scientists to promote bad science.

The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion where 'climate contrarians' have been pegged as the new blasphemers.

I fear for this sequela as well.

Our goal should be not only to defend the notion that humans contribute to a nontrivial percentage of the variance in climate change, but to identify all the other causes as well.

Dale Carrico said...

But Goodman doesn't suggest that climate change denial should land its advocates in jail. Instead, she expresses what looks to us both as very reasonable frustration that corporate media keeps whomping up a false spectacle of controversy where science has arrived in fact at consensus on matters of urgent concern to everyone alive on earth. Why do you describe this reasonable frustration as an "outburst"? I read the article when your piece brought it to my notice, but I must say it really doesn't seem like an "outburst" to me.

Perhaps a better analogy Goodman could have drawn here would have been to misleading corporate-sponsored "science" supporting the profitable but personally catastrophic fantasy of the "safe cigarette" -- rather than to Holocaust denial. But even as it is, Goodman's article doesn't put anything like the normative weight on this analogy one would expect from reading your account of it, and definitely she doesn't propose anything like the intolerance you are worrying about from her argument.

Goodman's "outburst" ends with some perfectly legitmate exasperation: "Can we change from debating global warming to preparing? Can we define the issue in ways that turn denial into action? In America what matters now isn't environmental science, but political science." One searches in vain for the call to jail or censor "climate skeptics."

Is it censorship or intolerance to point out that there are few reputable voices defending the flat-earth hypothesis or phlogiston at this point? Isn't that her point? To analogize climate change denial to Holocaust denial is just to point out how outrageous it is -- not to defend censorship of those who express the denial.

I'm with you, precisely because the Holocaust occured and must be remembered, it is crucial that those few who deny or cynically pretend to deny its atrocity must be free to express their views and then feel the devastating spotlight of public scrutiny -- but this is quite another thing from pretending such views are legitimate or contribute to inquiry or what have you.

You suggest near the end of your argument that not every form dissent deserves to be celebrated as a contribution to free inquiry (even though we would both -- as most certainly so too would Goodman -- champion the right of the dissenter to free expression whatever the consequences), when you say, "It is another thing altogether for unscrupulous groups to like Exxon and corrupt politicians to add unwarranted noise and obstacles to the discussion." This is precisely the state of affairs Goodman is decrying, and so I don't understand what it is about her piece that upset you.

When you say, "The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion" I must say that this seems a curious claim, inasmuch as what the overabundant consensus of climate scientists are saying here is that the facts are on their side and that the problems we confront are grave enough to deserve more attention by far than they are getting. The exhibition of "faith" here is clearly our inaction and inattention in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus. I guess I still just don't understand what prompted this piece, given the facts and given the texts you cite.

As a aside to Jamais: Godwin's Law needs a correlate Meta Godwin's Law to remind us not to apply the Law itself too promiscuously. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Bush era may indeed demand a -- let us hope, temporary -- moratorium on citation of the Law where this Administration is concerned!

Jose said...

I think people who want to take aim at the Global Warming deniers should focus their fire on where it hurts. Follow the money funding these Public Relations efforts (and to a large extent that is what they are). Point out the difference between "Research" and "Public Relations". A lot of the far right constituency don't seem to understand the difference between a press release and a peer reviewed study.

One last point on the term "Global Warming skeptic". I'm sure there are people who don't subscribe to AGW due to skepticism but for large part these people are subscribing to Christian Dominionism and Conspiracy Theory. They are the opposite of skeptical.

George said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your insightful comments. Just a couple of things to clarify:

- It wasn't my intention to suggest that global warming deniers will soon end up in jail like Irving; rather, I used the example as a sort of reality check to show how the pendulum can sometimes swing too far. I regret if I didn't make this sufficiently clear.

- you guys are absolutely right to suggest that denial of climate change may in fact be an indicator of incompetence in certain fields like meteorology. An analogy can be made to a biology teacher who cannot grok natural selection. The examples I used were meant to illustrate how this is already happening today. As for Goodman's "outburst," I really do feel she went too far; she and others should pay more mind to how difficult it is for people to accept and switch to the new normal, particularly when there's so much noise and subterfuge.

- lastly, my statement "The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion" was aimed at those who are allowing their emotions to override their heads -- the kind of folks who relish the witch hunt and would like to stifle alternative opinions altogether.

George said...

As an aside, readers may be interested to learn that Ernst Zundel was sentenced today to 5-years in prison for denying the Holocaust.

mw said...

I think George is quite right.

A concept can turn into turn an icon to such a degree that any doubt - however expressed - becomes heresy. The same process can be observed with individuals who are lionised - very likely that’s how organised religion started!

mw