Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Morning Chaser Knocks the Cobwebs Away

I had a remarkably frustrating but eye-opening conversation last night with another pilot. I'm used to this, of course, as a liberal working in a sea of vocally conservative men. But typically the discussions are about the fuzzy intangibles of social policy.

What took me aback this time was the other guy's open and unapologetic avowal that global warming was not occurring.

It doesn't surprise me to hear some waffling or equivocating about the fuzzier elements of the theory that human activity is causing the surface temperature of our planet to rise--especially from a group of almost uniformly conservative white men (though why conservatives deny science is still a bit unclear to me). I think there is plenty of room for speculation about what climate data mean exactly and about what the effects of a warming planet will be; but I'm frankly shocked that an educated, intelligent person would openly and vehemently state that the entire issue is a complete fabrication. And I had to wonder how a person gets there--or, conversely, how I come to my certainty that he is wrong.

He went considerably further than to claim that the planet was not warming. He had a long list of examples at his fingertips which proved, he felt, that it was all a vast conspiracy, a politically-motivated hoax: evidence of bad science being pushed by the mainstream media; evidence of people "telling the truth" who were rejected by the academic establishment; the pernicious effects of government in promoting the Big Lie. On and on (it was a four hour conversation). Any objection was quickly swatted away with another example and then another, all of them rather tabloid in nature and strangely out of view of any major news coverage. All of this was bolstered with a more general indictment of the disease of liberalism. This was clearly a pet subject for him, and he had ready answers for any objections (usually before I had actually completed the objection).

I was especially interested in this view that the quite overwhelming scientific consensus for global warming is driven by a political conspiracy; this seems to me an Alice-in-Wonderland view when the very charge seems so transparently to apply to the global warming denial camp. He was unwavering in his view that scientists are deeply divided and that there is a large body of scientists who deny the data. I just couldn't reconcile this; if the data were controversial, I felt sure I would hear of this with some regularity. From Wikipedia:
The controversy is significantly more pronounced in the popular media than in the scientific literature, where there is a strong consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. No scientific body of national or international standing disagrees with this view, though a few organisations hold non-committal positions.

If global warming is not happening; if there's no such thing as a "greenhouse effect" or "greenhouse gases;" if human activity cannot possibly be altering the atmosphere, then there is no reason to accept the difficult burdens of making changes to our culture's energy consumption; and there can be no rational explanation for our failure to build more refineries and to tap into our domestic reserves of oil and gas and coal. The idea of promoting alternative energy in this view becomes at best senseless, and at worst criminal. And government promotion of alternative energy can only be malicious and pernicious--perfect examples of the inherent negativity of government itself. These things, he says--failing to drill, baby, drill and the criminal promotion of alternative energy--have put us in a very tenuous position, with a huge reliance on energy supplies from unstable and unfriendly places. (He also claims that our government has made it virtually impossible to pursue nuclear power as a partial solution to the issue--one statement about which I'm actually inclined to agree.)

All the ways in which we might move forward--solar power and electric cars were two of his most hated--were evidence of stupidity because on their own they were not solving the problem (not that we were at much risk of agreeing what "the problem" even is). The idea of transitional steps leading us to places not yet grasped or realized was set aside. It took a furious effort on my part to get him to concede that technology gained by the development of, say, the Toyota Prius might be useful in future vehicles, vehicles that did not have the fatal flaws he had so carefully shaped into an indictment of the said Prius (unrecoverable additional expense, toxicity of batteries, reliance on the same gas engine that the global warming crowd wants to eliminate, etc.).

How can it be that the whole country (minus the devotees of Faux News) is standing on this pillar of sand? How can we ALL be so misinformed? He trotted out the threadbare charge that virtually all news outlets--The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, NPR; he listed a few others but not, significantly, Fox--were in lockstep promoting the Big Lie. This is where conservatives get their "liberal media" mantra; the idea that the collective opinion of these organizations gives weight to the soundness of their consensus can be dismissed if it's all a conspiracy. When I asked what possible motive all these entities have in promoting a proposition that did not hold water, he had a ready answer about all the people who stood to make money off of the changes the new policies would mandate--all the messy edges of the carbon bank and the scams of solar panels which would not pay for themselves. (Again, I find it so ironic that this big, elaborate conspiracy is held to be more likely than the much simpler view that we're an oil-based culture with powerful lobbies protecting the status quo, from energy companies to car companies--all supported by a spectacle-hungry media machine that is playing to the ignorant fears of the Republican men who run the country.)

I contended that real science was practiced quite apart from the gain or loss the knowledge would predicate, that the scientific community could not be squashed by bribing a handful with the promise of spoils. But he was having none of it; there is no such thing as unpolluted science anymore, he says. This is all hand-in-glove with Faux's push to undermine the very IDEA of expertise; no one is to be trusted and everyone has an ulterior motive. Jenny McCarthy makes as good an "expert" as a brain scientist--better, because she used to be a Playboy Bunny and has a tendency to fly off the handle. Any examples of bad science or malfeasance on the part of those promoting global warming is quickly elevated to exemplary status for all of climate science.

I'm stalled in reading Michael Specter's Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives; it's simply too depressing and blood-pressure-raising for me to have any enthusiasm for finishing it. But my conversation with this pilot makes the book's case and exemplifies just how far this insidious anti-rationality has advanced. And I can't help thinking the disease is promoted primarily by a media which is making millions titillating and entertaining, rather than informing, us. All of these things come directly from Rupert Murdoch's playbook: the undermining of academia; the undermining of expertise itself; the ascribing of political motives to inconvenient data; the promotion of spectacle and outrage as legitimate news. But I've just not been faced before quite so baldly with such a carefully-constructed web of denihilism. Typically when I talk politics with another pilot I find myself moving in the conversation to the right and they (when they glean that I "ain't from around here") move leftward and we often find a surprising area of commonality before retreating to our corners of irreconcilability. But this guy started in the conspiracy pen and stayed there; and he had built impressive fortifications and trenchworks around his position. Whether the same work applied to rooting him out of these positions--work I have not done--would succeed in putting us on some common ground I cannot say. It is the nature of Tea-Bagger denihilism that one holds one's views despite any evidence or persuasion.

But how then do we make progress?

(As an aside, at one point he used the proponents of "Intelligent Design"--shorthand for biblical creationism--as an example of the "sound thinking" that was being denied entry to the halls of academia. This is a subject of which I have a bit more knowledge, and his views were easily dismissed and he rather quickly found himself without an argument to make. I can't help thinking that despite having "educated" himself very extensively on the right wing talking points of energy policy his true grasp of the totality of the subject was similarly lacking. But it's depressing that a person will apparently need to get an advanced degree in irrationality to combat it.)


Jeffy said...

I frequently imagine that by having a lengthy discussion with a person who has opposing views to mine I can learn a bit about how a person can come by those views. Then reality intrudes and I realize that their views are not formed from a logical consideration of facts, but they are a persistent illusion built from faith-based beliefs and misinformation.

I am convinced that folks who deny any possibility that human activity might be causing a build-up of greenhouse gases and a corresponding increase in temperatures start with a general disbelief in science. Since science often contradicts their religious beliefs, and science just looks like a competing religion to them, it is easy for them to dismiss science. Throw in the fact that they have no practice reasoning for themselves, and the ready supply of seemingly plausible alternative reality 'facts' that are dispensed by the biased 'news' sources they follow and it is hardly any wonder that they can believe these fantasies.

What really amazes me are the huge inconsistencies in their illusory worlds. Your coworker readily recognizes that our petroleum resources are in short supply, and that we get an unreasonably large fraction of those resources from an unstable part of the world that we can't really trust or do much about. Yet he has nothing but disdain for our various attempts to wean ourselves from this dependency. These inconsistencies would be recognized by a logical person as a flaw in their reasoning, but these flat-earthers don't even notice them (or are good about ignoring them, as they must be about the other facts that don't fit into their distorted reality).

At least I can find some comfort in the fact that I don't get locked into a small metal box with a couple of these guys for hours at a time every few days.

wunelle said...

Quite so. I think they way he gets around this contradiction--of hating our dependence on foreign energy but scoffing at our attempts to create alternatives--is that he is pursuing a very specific narrative which has been fed to him from his sole news source (which tells him it is unbiased and so he agrees): you must drill, baby, drill. His contention is that carbon-based energy is not the problem, only our badly-chosen source of it.

I'm still surprised at how it was virtually impossible to have a discussion about what is known and not known: he KNOWS a bunch of stuff that I think is dubious at best, and he rejects out of hand a bunch of stuff which I think deserves weight.

I just don't know how to combat that.

dbackdad said...

Wow. You have remarkable patience. Both creationism and global warming denial fail even the most basic scientific tenets.

It's hard for me to argue with these type of people because they are not using the same framework. They are not studying data and drawing conclusions. They have already decided on a conclusion and go cherry pick dubious data to supposedly support it. A middle-school student would fail for doing the same thing.

wunelle said...

I know! What was next? The flat-Earth thing? (Very difficult to maintain when he regularly flies an airplane around the circumference of the planet.)

But again there's this slippery dishonesty where he accuses climate scientists and their supporters of exactly the same logical flaw--of arguing backward from conclusions! He would say the conclusions are desired for economic reasons and the science and policies are made to fit!

(I'm reminded of this thick dollop of dishonesty in conservative debate tactics when looking at some of the Tea-Baggers' counter-protest signs in Madison over the past couple weeks. "Sorry we couldn't get here sooner. We work for a living." As though the protesters are the snobby elites! How Karl Rove is that?)

It's terribly depressing. It's an Artemus Ward quote, I think, that says: "It's what you know for a fact that ain't so."

wunelle said...

Oh, he had another too: there was never a hole in the ozone layer; it was just a scam to make billions for DuPont! (I see one can find conspiracy web pages supporting this as well.)

Another one where I have no native expertise. But the legitimate websites have not disavowed the general principles behind the initial concern. There appears to be some consensus that the reduction of CFCs has helped.