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Old men behaving badly

December 20th, 2011

John Howard’s endorsement of Ian Plimer’s children’s version of his absurd anti-science tract Heaven and Earth has at least one good feature. I can now cut the number of prominent Australian conservatives for whom I have any intellectual respect down from two to one. Howard’s acceptance of anti-science nonsense shows that, for all his ability as a politician, he is, in the end, just another tribalist incapable of thinking for himself[1].

Although not all the tribal leaders are old men, an old, high-status man like Howard is certainly emblematic of Australian delusionism . Like a lot of old, high status men, he stopped thinking decades ago, but is even more confident of being right now than when he had to confront his prejudices with reality from time time. Like other delusionists, Howard has no scientific training, shows no sign of understanding statistics and almost certainly hasn’t read any real scientific literature, but nonetheless believes he can rank clowns like Plimer and Monckton ahead of the real scientists.

The situation in the US is similar but even more grimly amusing, with the sole truthteller in the entire Republican party, Jon Huntsman, recently reduced to waffling (in both US and UK/Oz senses of this term) because he briefly looked like having a chance to be the next non-Romney. This tribal mindlessness is reflected in the inability of the Republican Party, at a time when they ought to be unbackable favorites in 2012, to come up with a candidate who can convince the basis s/he is one of them, but who doesn’t rapidly reveal themselves as a fool, a knave or both.

And, as evidence of the utter intellectual shamelessness of delusionism, you can’t beat the campaign against wind power, driven by the kinds of absurd claims of risk that would be mocked, mercilessly and deservedly, if they came from the mainstream environmental movement.

The global left is in pretty bad shape in lots of ways. Still, I would really hate to be a conservative right now.

fn1. I’m not saying that all Australian conservatives are mindless tribalists. There’s a large group, epitomized by Greg Hunt, who understand the issues quite well, but are too gutless to speak up. Then there is a group of postmodern conservatives of whom Andrew Bolt is probably the best example, who have passed the point where concepts of truth or falsehood have any meaning – truth is whatever suits the cause on any given day.

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  1. Charles
    December 24th, 2011 at 15:50 | #1

    Jim Birch
    December 22nd, 2011 at 09:47 | #36
    Reply | Quote

    Contrary to what we might vainly imagine, the human mental apparatus was not optimised by evolution for the determination of truth.

    It’s interesting where AI research has got to. Emotion is an important part of intelligence. Why to we run, love and believe n God, none of it is based on a long and considered review of the facts.

  2. Dan
    December 24th, 2011 at 18:33 | #2

    To put it bluntly, we are screwed.

    How screwed remains to be seen. I note that we have screwed the developing world worse than we have screwed ourselves, as per usual.

    Has anyone else read Clive Hamilton’s latest?

  3. adelady
    December 24th, 2011 at 20:37 | #3

    “People will die in large numbers if we don’t get this right and do it soon.”

    Ken, I’m very much afraid that staring into this abyss tells you that large numbers of people will die even as we start to do the right thing. Because we’ve not done the preventive thing which would have been to reduce emissions as of 30 years ago.

    As a side note. For all those who people who ‘blame’ the new surge in emissions on China – just stop and think for a minute. The advanced economies could have continued, expanded and developed low emissions technologies as they were first emerging 30 years ago. Had they done that, which particular mix of technologies would China be using now.

    So we failed to build our own fence on top of this particular cliff. In doing so, we made it difficult for others to build their fence. And now we’re squabbling over how many ambulances are needed at the bottom of the cliff and who’ll pay for them. And how dare you suggest we spend even more scarce funds on re-landscaping that clifftop!

    The question now is not that many people will die. They will. It is that we can prevent more unnecessary deaths on top of that number.

  4. Donald Oats
    December 24th, 2011 at 21:21 | #4

    I wish to correct the record: this is actually Plimer’s second book for children, concerning climate change.

    Skimmed through a copy at a Dymock’s book shop in Rundle Mall; barely any pictures except for some graphs near the end, and a lot of messy words. Hardly the stuff to ignite a teenager’s imagination, which is the point of the book, I would have thought. On second thoughts, maybe this is the dumbed down one to reach the masses, one for the journalists at the Australian to use as “evidence”.

    Finally, the fact that Howard has aligned himself with these clowns is no surprise to me—I’ve always found Howard’s use of the English language to be very legalistic when he discussed the issue of AGW during his tenure as Prime Minister of Australia. Difficult to know his real opinion on the subject of climate change, until now, that is. Whoever said that clowns are funny?

  5. Fran Barlow
    December 24th, 2011 at 22:56 | #5

    @Donald Oats

    Whoever said that clowns are funny?

    He’s got to be one of those sad clowns one hears of. Perhaps someone will do an opera about him and Plimer.

  6. Wooster
    December 24th, 2011 at 23:35 | #6

    Wow!…a forum that isn’t infested with climate change “skeptics”.

    It is strange how they always link to sites that are the province of people whose area of expertise is other than climate science. …and then they call you names. It seems the exclusive province of the denier to label one an “idiot” or such like.

    This article by Naomi Klein is right on the money.
    http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate

  7. Troy Prideaux
    December 25th, 2011 at 21:57 | #7

    @Dan
    No I haven’t.

    The smartest people I personally know all pretty much say exactly what you said – word for word.

    And a very Merry Xmas all, no that cheerful note.

  8. Donald Oats
    December 26th, 2011 at 00:53 | #8

    @Fran Barlow

    Been reading one of Peter Medawar’s book reviews, a particularly ferocious one, for the book “The Phenomenon of Man”; the author was Teilhard. Medawar’s words seem apposite here, for reasons I shall leave unstated:

    I do not propose to criticize the fatuous argument I have just outlined; here, to expound is to expose.

    How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man?

    1. The Phenomenon of Man is anti-scientific in temper (scientists are shown up as shallow folk skating about on the surface of things), and, as if that were not recommendation enough, it was written by a scientist, a fact which seems to give it particular authority and weight. Laymen firmly believe that scientists are one species of person. They are not to know that the different branches of science require very different aptitudes and degrees of skill for their prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He does not even preserve the common decencies of scientific writing, though his book is professedly a scientific treatise.

    I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.

    *Ouch!*

    If one is sufficiently impish to engage in a game of title and author substitution, the above quote would have a grimly satisfying fit. Medawar did not suffer fools or deceivers. The above quoted pieces are in Ch1 “The Phenomenon of Man” pp 9–10, from Peter Medawar, “The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice, and Other Classic Essays on Science”, Oxford University Press, 1996.

  9. Fran Barlow
    December 26th, 2011 at 12:53 | #9

    @Fran Barlow

    Ta Donald … most apt

  10. John Brookes
    December 26th, 2011 at 19:07 | #10

    @Ken Fabian
    (and for gain of one sort or other) – I think most of them just have an ideological bent which leads them to denialism. They view people who think action on climate change is necessary as deluded…

  11. Ken Fabian
    December 27th, 2011 at 05:27 | #11

    John Brookes, I suspect the decision making criteria of commerce and industry – relative costs, competitiveness and profitability – have insinuated themselves into the position held by the political voices representing the interests of commerce and industry. ie the political Right. On those criteria it might even be considered logical and reasonable to decide that climate science denial and opposition to emissions reductions are the ‘correct’ choices and that the tools of marketing and lobbying are the appropriate ways to prevent an ‘avoidable’ burden of costs that a shift to a low emissions economy demands.
    Our institutions of science are our most successful sorters of truth from belief and whilst perfect academic Truth may forever be elusive, Science is by far superior to institutions such as religion, the judiciary and the courts – or markets – to foresee consequences.

  12. Ken Fabian
    December 27th, 2011 at 05:46 | #12

    @adelady
    I would actually like to see those who are Right leaning but who have a degree of trust in Science to regain their voices and that theydemand their ‘side’ lose the dangerously irresponsible promotion of BS about climate for short term gain – I think I’d prefer that, simply as a matter of being more effective and productive, than attempting to persuade them to switch political allegiances.

    Surely Malcolm is not alone. Surely amongst ‘loyal’ Nats and Libs there are some very worried people who have real concerns for the legacy that will be left for future generations through their parties choosing the short term expedient of promoting BS and attacking our fundamental and essentially conservative institutions of Science and Academia.

  13. 2 tanners
    December 30th, 2011 at 20:18 | #13

    Having met the man, while having never agreed with his politics, I am nevertheless profoundly dismayed at Mr Howard’s declaration. He has his moral code and an incredible memory for facts and statements made. He is sharp, very sharp, and does not suffer fools gladly although as a consummate politician he tends to disguise this well in public. As a result, I do not believe he has been taken in.

    And that is what dismays me the most. I do not pretend to know the reason for his statement but I have to wonder: whose advantage is he seeking? Certainly not that of his grandchildren.

  14. frankis
    December 31st, 2011 at 11:39 | #14

    “Howard scored As in English and modern history in the Leaving Certificate and Bs in Latin, chemistry and economics. He failed general maths”: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/09/17/1095394004427.html

    Gloss it all you like, or talk if you must in reverent tones of his political acumen and blah blah blah, the simple fact is that John Howard – is that who we’re talking about? – is and was a bit of a dunce. Innumerate, scientifically unschoolable. So we’re surprised to see him promoting a charlatan like Plimer? Howard doesn’t have the capacity to understand anything of the scientific arguments around climate change, he’s dependent on nothing more substantive than his political instincts.

  15. alfred venison
    December 31st, 2011 at 18:00 | #15

    dear John Brookes/Ken Fabian
    i think they fear, above all, ‘socialism by stealth’, for, as i see it, within the context of any considered & concerted world-wide response to climate change, aspects of socialism begin to make sense. again. and, having successfully fought the genie of socialism to a standstill, high-capitalism now profits greatly from a one-world system, with no viable alternatives, and is steadfastly determined that no competing system like socialism, theoretical or practical, shall ever again be allowed to exist as a feasible, let alone legitimate, alternative to organising human affairs, even if only in people’s minds. and, most emphatically, not ‘through the back door’ of any considered & concerted collective response to climate change, however well-intended or, even, necessary. they seem unwilling to ever wittingly acquiesce to any considered & concerted collective response to climate change, because they see that any such program on climate, will necessarily give rise to intellectual & material conditions propitious to a return ‘through the back door’ of the socialist alternative they dread more than anything, especially because it begins at last, in the present context, to make sense.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  16. paul of albury
    December 31st, 2011 at 23:42 | #16

    alfred venison – to sum up, they’d prefer to be dead than red?

  17. alfred venison
    January 1st, 2012 at 16:54 | #17

    dear paul of albury
    its not so much they’d rather be dead than red, although what i’m suggesting is a species of that line. it seems to me more like they’d rather be top capitalists in a diminished world, then take even a small risk of possibly giving an opening to socialism through present action to prevent that diminishment of the world. it seems that to these people any action on climate, that is not an epiphenomenon of business as usual, is action that will advantage socialism in the eyes of the masses and their organic intellectuals as a viable alternative.

    imagine, should climate change action also be embraced by the top capitalists, and during discussions about it on, say, nat’l tv talk shows, someone with charisma were to ask “in light of the acute criticality of the acknowledged emergency, why are we not doing something more, collectively, as a nation, in response?” imagine the multiplier effect. imagine the effect of a nation of sheep, infected through tv talk shows (of all things) with the bacillus of socialism, demanding action on clear & present climate (weather) dangers?

    i think its misguided to assume these people are just anti science or don’t understand it. for some undoubtedly that’s true. but for others, its like they damn well know already what kind of future world their present prevarications will result in. its their answer to socialism emerging as a viable alternative in response to climate change. all their work in the present is simply to ensure that the emergence of co-operative solutions is stifled and measures are taken to ensure that they will still be on the top in the future they’re engineering to emerge. a future where authoritarian solutions will appear the norm and they will be the party and sector to provide them. the alternative, to respond now with co-operative solutions before its too late is an unacceptable risk of socialism to them.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  18. Ken Fabian
    January 2nd, 2012 at 06:52 | #18

    Alfred I think the resistance to dealing with the climate problem gets clothed in the rhetoric of ideology but that at it’s core more basic motivations are at work. Greed and fear mostly – greed from those most directly effected for the lost revenues from (excluding the externalities) very profitable ways of doing business and fear more generally of facing profound change that (excluding the externalities) looks likely to be very costly and difficult. I think the choice to dismiss and ignore those externalities reflects both the inability for those without deep knowledge and expertise to make the assessment of how real or serious the problem is and that overriding fear of change and lost prosperity. That fear not only undermines the resolve to act, it undermines rational decision making. Of course it’s irrational to believe all our leading scientific institutions are engaged in a scam or that a couple of mineral geologists have superior understanding of how climate works. And it’s irrational to think the commercial decision making criteria and policy influencing methods of commerce and industry are appropriate for dealing with – or avoid dealing with – the world endangering problems an understanding of climate reveals.

    The organised response to undermine efforts to act early or effectively has gained a momentum of it’s own and I’m not sure any real world impacts of climate change will, by themselves, be sufficient to derail the fossil fuel juggernaut. Yet climate science denial is irrational and that remains it’s weakness.

  19. Wooster
    January 2nd, 2012 at 07:53 | #19

    Following on from your post, Ken. Clive Hamilton delivered this paper to a conference in Brussels in 2010 – on the why some resist the truth about climate change. It’s quite an interesting read.

    http://www.clivehamilton.net.au/cms/media/why_we_resist_the_truth_about_climate_change.pdf

  20. Dan
    January 2nd, 2012 at 08:03 | #20

    It would be wonderful to have a big-time industrialist come out and speak the truth, which goes:

    ‘I don’t care much about the climate change I am making a fairly significant contribution to, because me, my family, and the people I know will be fine, and in the interim I want to make a motza or at least not get out-competed by people more unscrupulous than I. Après moi, le déluge – literally.’

  21. Ken Fabian
    January 3rd, 2012 at 07:02 | #21

    Dan – that sounds a bit like Doonesbury’s Honest Man. Fictional of course.

    I think that those who hold positions of trust are betraying that trust when they lend their authority to climate science denial. People like Minchin, Abbott, Howard etc don’t know and can’t know that climate science is wrong but they surely should have sufficient good judgement to know when to seek expert advice. And to know the difference between shills and scientists. From our elected representatives, in who’s good judgement we must trust, it’s not a matter of freedom of ideas and opinions and freedom to express them; there is a global problem beyond all previous experience and some are lending their influence and authority to organised efforts to prevent timely action to limit the damage.

    The cost in human lives of failure to address the problem may be beyond calculation but taking McMichael et al in Lancet as a conservative baseline excess mortality arising from climate change is probably already past the million mark. Which is why I think the word ‘Denier’ with those alleged implication of Holocaust Denial is probably too mild a comparison for what organised, knowing promotion of BS about climate science is doing. It’s global success will kill more people than all the genocides of history. I don’t know what else to call that but a crime against humanity.

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