Ideology and agnotology

The way in which I’ve generally thought about politics is in terms of ideology and particularly, the divide between the left (socialists, social democrats, labour and related groups) and the right (various strains of conservatives, market liberals and business advocates). But increasingly I doubt that this is the right way to look at things.

First, the long-heralded ‘end of ideology’ seems to arrived, but not in way its proposers imagined.

The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century gradually eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions. This is broadly consistent with the ‘end of ideology’ story.

On the right, however, the scene is one of complete ideological incoherence. Market liberalism has run out of steam, libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties (to be fair, Obama has also failed here) , and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

In this context, it’s important to observe that, while the big oil companies initially funded the manufacture of ignorance about climate change using recycled tobacco hacks like Fred Singer, Fred Seitz and so on Steve Milloy, the process has developed its own momentum. Hostility to science and scientists on this issue is now so universal on the right that there is a ready market for additions to the supply of ignorance in the form of new talking points, manufactured scandals and so on. So, even though Exxon pulled the funding plug a few years ago, this stuff keeps on coming.

But the same pattern can be observed repeated across a vast range of issues – creationism, birtherism, the abortion-breast cancer link, the supposed WMDs in Iraq, the idea that the financial crisis was caused by the Community Reinvestment Act and others too numerous to mention. The intellectual atmosphere is one of uncritical acceptance of any talking point, no matter how absurd, that appears to support the position of the tribe.

Some of those maintaining such absurdities continue to present themselves as serious intellectuals, and indeed some of them once could have justified this claim. But now, above and beyond the abandonment of independent judgement on individual issues, they have been forced to pay obeisance virtues of ignorance, as represented by first by GW Bush and then, in even more extreme form by Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck and their Australian equivalents, such as Abbott, Minchin and the rightwing commentariat in general.

How will political contests over agnotology play out? Ignorant tribalism is not a force to be dismissed lightly. In day-to-day politics, the absence of any coherent position or relationship to reality is not a big disadvantage, while a machine capable of disseminating talking points is a big asset.

On the other hand, there are some significant long run costs associated with the embrace of ignorance. Science has been the central engine of human progress over the past century or more and anti-science political movements have rarely prospered for long. The average voter has not yet recognised the fact that the political right is now vehemently opposed to science and scientists. But both scientists and their rightwing enemies are well aware of the fact.

Stereotypical images of scientists as grant-grubbing fans of world government are routinely found in public rightwing rhetoric along with welfare queens, limousine liberals and other outgroups. These attacks are now extending to vicious campaigns of personal harassment, ranging from the overt disruption associated with the FOI and hacking campaign called ‘Climategate’ to anonymous hate mail and death threats. Rightwingers have almost universally cheered the criminality of the Climategate hack, and have tacitly or overtly supported the broader hate campaign.

Conversely, scientists are now as reliably hostile to the Republican party as African-Americans (a total of 6 per cent, according to this poll) When the general image of the political right catches up with this reality, the costs are likely to be severe.

But, in the meantime, their abandonment of reality-based politics has left managerialists like Rudd and Obama wrong-footed. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax.

The big political problem is that while competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. What is needed here is a return to ideology, and a project to move beyond day-to-day management and offer the ‘light on the hill’ of a positive social transformation, based on justice and equality.

180 thoughts on “Ideology and agnotology

  1. The denialists/deniers can be called “anti-science” for two fundamental and separate reasons. Firstly, they are in denial of the core principle of climate change science, namely the greenhouse effect. Secondly, for reasons of sheer ideology they oppose the peak scientific body on climate change, namely the IPCC.

  2. JQ,

    1- Was your reply at #45 made with the benefit of having read my lengthy comment currently awaiting moderation at #43?

    2- Correct me if I am wrong on the details here. Did you not approve the withdrawal of a South Australian bill that would have required hitherto anonymous blog commenters to disclose their identity? A week or so ago, I think it was.

    3- I see that you smell a rat, comrade. But what makes you think that I would go into a painstaking detail to create a fictitious persona, a “concern troll”, whereas the more elegant explanation would be that I am the real deal? I hope you do not consider my evidently shoddy grammar and spelling as additional fictitious devices to hide my true identity as native English speaker. Tsk, tsk, tsk, comrade! You are so quick to apply the ‘duplicity’ charge. You are so sure of it on gut instinct alone?

    4- Shortly, I’ll get to something that will hopefully make you feel special and happy, John, but first a bit of a slog to read. Did you know that until 13 October 2009 (four months ago), except for one instance, I never made any climate related comment on the web ever under my real name or a pseudonym? The second ever comment regarding climate change that I made was at the Air Vent, a sceptical blog run by Jeff Id, a self-declared right-winger. Three weeks ago on this blog when you and a few others first questioned the veracity of my claims that I was a Greenie-cum-sceptic, I said this:

    John, I am very sincere in what I said. I am/was Greenie for the last ten years and I am sick and tired of the dogmatic devotion of the Green movement to the uncertain AGW science and the expensive policy responses it seeks. I am considering voting informal in the elections this year since I cannot bring myself to vote for a right wing party.

    After that, I proceeded to give you an excerpt from my somewhat longish comment at the Air Vent. Not sure if you read it at all. This time please allow me to quote in full, warts and all, my comment at the Air vent four months ago under my usual seal, sHx. Note how fresh I sound, how green, how uncertain, how angry at politicisation of the debate and how firmly, firmly agnostic:

    sHx said
    October 15, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    One of the things that really annoys me about the AGW debate and forces me to remain a non-interested by-stander is the way the debate has become politicised. Even those who complain about politicisation of the debate do it unashamedly. If you’re making, or convinced by, the AGW arguments then you’ve got to be a leftist-liberal. If however you are not taken in by the AGW arguments then, mate, that is because you are a right-winger or conservative. Neither side refrain from making this pathetic categorisation in spite of the claims made by both sides that they are applying the best of the scientific method.

    I began skimming through Jeff Id’s blog post after this sentence: “Don’t read it if you’re a liberal.” Sure thing, but why? Is it because AGW is a left-liberal conspiracy? Will I be closer to the scientific truth if I shift my political allegiance to the consevative side of the politics? Reading Jeff Id’s post, it is hard to conclude otherwise.

    Take this sentence for example which, despite skimming through the post, caught my eye, lingered in my mind, and finally brought me back to say something:

    “Michael Mann has probably never had a conservative thought in his life.”

    For those who pay some attention to one of the key issues between Micheal Mann’s team and Steve McIntyre & Co, namely the peer-review process of scientific publications, the statement above ought to be manifestly false. By insisting on only the peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals in order to take counter-arguments seriously, Micheal Mann and his team are demanding a very rigid and most conservative ritual of scientific process. Conversely, Steve McIntyre seeks to revolutionise this conservative structure by opening up the review process to general public with the aid of technology, which would make him a progressive liberal. It is non-sense that AGW advocates cannot be conservative, or sceptics progressive.

    I have been a life long liberal, leftist, greenie, or whatever you may call it, but I consider myself neither a sceptic nor a supporter of the AGW claims for the simple reason that this is a scientific debate not a political one. The reason I refuse to take part in this argy-bargy is because I am not persuaded by the claims of either side. Sceptics would like us to believe that all the evidence pulled in from various scientific fields is just a merry coincidence conjured by a small, self-serving group pushing forward a non-scientific interest. The advocates are acting like biblical doomsayers. Not only is there a global warming, they would have us believe, but it is definitely human-induced and, if we don’t do anything big and drastic very, very soon, it will be the end of humanity.

    Why isn’t there a third group that calls a halt to the excesses of both sides? Scientists and laymen alike who are prepared to consider the issue without getting into the left-right politicisation? It is really annoying and most unsatifying when people like me who don’t have a firm view -yet!- one way or the other are lumped into political categories that we don’t belong to over what should be a purely scientific debate.

    If you follow the link you’ll read also Jeff Id’s very civilised response. The most unexpected finding in my six-month-long excursion in the climate blogosphere was that respect, civility, decorum and willingness to engage in honest and reasoned exchange are in abundance in sceptical websites. In pro-AGW blogs and websites, they are precious commodity. Ridicule, name-calling, belittling, jeering and sneering is what you are guaranteed to get to moment you question the prevailing dogma in pro-AGW blogs. Here is an idea, John. Why don’t you wear a pseudonym and pay a visit to one of the blogs on your say of the debate, say, Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, and question the veracity of climate science. Let’s see what kind of treatment you get. Anyway, let’s not digress.

    5- Now, here is the special part. You don’t know this, John. My first comment ever about climate change on the web or anywhere in public, my one and only comment prior the one four months ago in the Air Vent, was made here on your blog five years ago. In 2005, almost to the month. Under my full real name and surname. I think I was still a member of the Greens at the time. Better still, you sent me an e-mail afterwards on a very personal note. We have never met personally, of course and I can’t trace that email now. But whenever I carry out a search on my name that page from your blog still pops up. I mean, in more colourful words, I lost my climate comment virginity on this blog five years ago, and never had a root again until four months ago. Now, I’ve come back for more as a man, out of love and loyalty most probably, and now you threaten to publicly denounce me and line me against the wall and shoot me, comrade! Where is the justice in that?

    6- If this much verbosity still hasn’t impressed upon you my bona fide credentials as an honest anonymous commenter, John, well, I’d be very happy to provide you my real name and surname to you in a private bigpond email, except that I can’t find your email listed anywhere on the page. Then, you could check my real identity on the web, the White Pages, the Dept of Immigration system, on electoral rolls and even among the list of former Green Party members.

    The lesson from this conversation is that, John, I wear my heart on my sleeves, whereas you, you wear your gut instincts. Just where the hell the idea that I might think “global warming is a hoax invented to advance the cause of world government, for example” came from? Is there really a global leftist conspiracy, comrade? And why none of the comrades told me anything about this special operation? I have been in the ranks all my life, you know, with family and all!

    Since I stuck my nose again into the climate debate four months ago, I have visited your fine blog once a week and have commented half a dozen times or so. Less than ten comments in four months! All of them under my seal, sHx. If you think, this is some unwarranted imposition, well, let me know again after this comment that I am not welcome here anymore, I promise I’ll be gone for good. If I could stay away from here for five years, hell, I can stay away for fifty years. The only courtesy I ask in return is that you let my final messages including this one to remain posted.

    Thanks and Kind Regards

  3. Here’s a couple of classic Bob Brown quotes for a start –

    Bob Brown press release Jan 06 – yeah right, a FTA is all about kowtowing the evil US corporate machine
    “The US-Australia Free Trade Agreement was biased against Australia”
    “The touted move to abandon the ‘anti-evergreening’ provision in the FTA points to the government’s obsequiousness to the Bush administration and US corporate giants,”

    Bob Brown press release Aug 04 – demoralise and offend millions of Australians? Yep – it sure is a BBQ stopper of that magnitude!
    “Labor’s capitulation to Prime Minister Howard’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) will demoralise and offend millions of Australians, including Labor voters”
    “This is self-serving, hollow politics after a sellout to the White House and the big end of town”

    When I get some spare time, I’ll try to collate a whole series of these and post them for you.

  4. @Andrew

    I’m not sure why you’re posting this stuff Andrew. Angst over the FTA or the US alliance is not peculiar to left-of-centre populists you know. Right-of-centre populists are nationalistic and parochial as well.

  5. Not to mention the obvious fact that the so-called FTA *was* biased against Australia. The US maintained most of the trade restrictions we wanted lifted, and got nearly everything they demanded from us. In particular, even the Howard government was eventually forced to act on evergreening. These were among the reasons most mainstream economists opposed the agreement.

    You’ll have to do a lot better than this, Andrew.

    To encourage you to stay at least vaguely on track, I’ve deleted your diversions on foreign policy. Whether or not you think Brown is sensible on foreign policy bears no relationship to the question of whether he bases his positions on false factual claims.

  6. @Fran Barlow

    Moreover, your swing at Bob Brown, Andrew, was not supported by the text at your link.

    There were a few references to Chavez’s popularity, which was and is beyond dispute, but the bulk of the text was devoted to a statement by the then FARC-captive Ingrid Betancourt on the nature of green politics. The bulk of the rest was a description of the case for increased diplomatic engagement with Venezuela and about some of its natural features and trade.

  7. I’m not sure that we are aren’t seeing plain old populism combined with the clash – and failure to reconcile – popular notions the Right like to promote like less regulation, free markets and lower taxes with issues – like climate change, sustainability and ecosystem destruction – that don’t have ready solutions that don’t involve forward planning, regulation and public funding. Yet they have no problem with issues that are seen as or are couched in terms of security; regulation and enforcement using public tax-payer funding for border security or protection of commerce gets unhesitating support. A shame they can’t see the impacts of climate change in terms of future security.

    Not that populism and failing to face reality is the preserve of the Right, but they really are struggling to find coherent, credible approaches to these big issues. The Left has no problem with notions of regulation and public funding but have their own blind spots. Without intending to start anything, I think absolute opposition to nuclear in the face of absolute need to reduce GHG emissions is one of those issues the Left can’t deal with rationally; they’ve invested too much to date in popularising and promoting opposition to nuclear in all forms (except perhaps nuclear medicine) in much the way the Right has invested in popularising and promoting opposition to climate science.

    Of course the real problem isn’t the policies of the extremes of Left or Right but the failure of Parties of the Centre to deal with these issues in any kind of effective manner – the lip service that Labor gives to these issues is only marginally better than the lip service that Liberal gives.

  8. sHx, I for one am prepared to accept your sincerity and honesty on this matter.

    However, speaking sincerely and honestly, and with post-graduate scientific training (but not in anything to do with cliamtology), I firmly believe that you are profoundly wrong, and find it hard to believe that an obviously reasonable person could arrive at where you have. The science, in general terms, truly is cut and dried. While there are many reasonable quibbles at the edges of the matter, there are so many corroborating lines of evidence to show that anthropogenic climate change is extremely probable, that you would have to have some irrational beliefs to come to another view.

    For climate change to be bogus would require the greatest conspiracy the world has ever known.

    The critics of cliamte science are without exception all over the shop. One theory is contradicted by another theory (often spouted by the same person), before too long it always comes down to their political considerations. The small number of genuine scientific sceptics, if you observe their debates closely enough, are really jsut gnawing at the edges of trivial points, they are not able to attack the rock solid central core of the hypothesis.

    Even if you were just playing the odds, and thought that rather than being 90%+ probable, it was say ~50% probable, that conclusion would still call for strong action.

    Of course, with all of that above, I wisely leave aside the politics and the economics of the matter.

  9. @sHx
    I’m willing to take you at face value. In fact in a previous comment thread I replied to your initial comment out of genuine curiosity:
    “Perhaps you could also share some specifics regarding the scientific arguments that “underwhelmed” you. Mostly you write about the politics which of course are important, but surely it doesn’t matter what the majority of the population thinks, the science is either accurate and plausible or it isn’t.”
    It really doesn’t matter much to me if you handed out how to vote cards for the Natural Law party and I also don’t care to find out the political affilations of those who publish their research in respectable peer reviewed journals. It is the process that should best establish the credibility of the information. I don’t rely on blogs alone for this kind of information.

  10. @sHx Fine, I’m happy to believe you are who you say you are. As regards pseudonymity, I do indeed support the right to pseudonymity, but note that it’s much more difficult to back up arguments by reference to your own authority or special experience (in this case as a Green converted to scepticism). By contrast, with someone like Patrick Moore (see upthread), it’s possible to check whether his claims are true or not.

    So, accepting all this, it seems as if you have wandered into a dispute that has been going on for 20 years or so, and decided your position on the basis of the demeanour of the participants.

    This does not seem sensible to me. I would have thought it better to make your own assessment of claims you are qualified to judge – this is certainly enough to determine that many of the claims made on the anti-science side of this debate are false and that those putting them forward should be disregarded on other issues as well.

    I’ve already given the example of claims that AGW is a fraud designed to bring about world government. You reject this and therefore ought also to reject Monckton and all his supporters – someone who makes such a crazy claim cannot be regarded as a reliable source on anything.

    Then, there is the talking point that “there has been no statistically significant warming in 15 years”. Assuming you know first–year statistics, you should see immediately that anyone who regards this point as evidence about AGW is either ignorant of the meaning of “statistically significant” or is being deliberately dishonest (if you don’t know stats, I’ll be explaining this later). Since this talking point and Phil Jones’ alleged “admission” on this point has been a big feature of the CRU controversy, recognition that the anti-AGW faction in this particular dispute is either ignorant or dishonest ought to affect your judgement.

    But if you want to stick absolutely to the view that the side that makes the least unfair personal attacks wins, I’ll ask you your view of the conduct of Steve McIntyre in this matter. Having received the stolen emails, McIntyre played a leading role in pushing the view that the phrases “hide the decline’ and “trick” indicated a conspiracy to conceal evidence against AGW. See here, and many more

    These charges of scientific fraud were baseless, and McIntyre either knew this or should have. Do you care to defend him?

  11. One thing is that science is messy. Decisions on how to interpret observed values must be made. Methods of analysis must be selected. New data, new equipment, and so on, all mean that a level of fluidity and uncertainty is present in science. AGW as a theory is subject to all of those factors – how could it be otherwise?

    An examination of the geologic history is quite elucidating on how natural climate changes have occurred for a variety of reasons. It also gives some insight into just how pig-headed geologists can be in sticking with their favourite ideas long past their use-by date, which is to say they are no different in that regard to the rest of us. But I digress. The point of geologic history is that we can see all manner of evidence pointing towards some pretty horrific climate conditions at various epochs, and it is in fact quite good fortune for humans to be living at such a benign period, in so far as global climatic conditions go.

    Here are some oft overlooked facts when the layperson is trying to use the past to gauge the present:
    * Continents move around. Before drawing too much from a particular ice age or tropical paradise in the distant past, it is a good idea to establish where the continents (and even how many) were at that point.
    * The end of the pre-Cambrian has a lot of evidence of a globally ice-covered Earth, including the equatorial regions. The Flinders Ranges in South Australia is one region that records the equatorial temperatures 700Myrs ago, or there abouts.
    * The Cambrian explosion of multicellular life forms capable of fossilisation happened after the last of the global ice age(s) finished.
    * Geological evidence strongly supports eventual buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as the principal means of exiting the last global ice age. While ice covered virtually everything, CO2 couldn’t react geochemically with rocks, and so volcanism eventually lifted CO2 and other GHGs to very high levels; enough to start a thaw.
    * Geologic evidence strongly supports the thaw as being exceptionally quick and Earth as being very hot and unpleasant, until geochemical reactions could reduce GHGs, principally CO2, back to levels more in line with Cambrian to present times – although large excursions have happened during that period too, none are as large as the “big thaw”.
    * The output of the sun has increased slowly over time. Estimates vary but a figure of 70% of current output is a reasonable guess at the output 4Byrs ago, or thereabouts.
    * Ocean currents are very important in moving heat around the planet. Again, the relative location and positions of the continents affects how climatic conditions change, but in this case it is due to the constraints on possible ocean currents allowed.
    * The orbit of the moon has shifted outwards over geologic time. This in turn affects tides.
    * The length of an Earth day has gradually increased; in the late pre-Cambrian it was about 22 hours. This in turn affects coriolis forces and a whole host of other things.
    * The albedo (reflectivity) of various materials has a marked impact upon the ability of Earth to heat up or cool down. Ice ages and the associated exits are an interplay of greenhouse gases, albedo changes, and heat transfer processes. The processes are inherently nonlinear.
    * No doubt more factors will be discovered in the future. It is even possible that one or two of the factors used in the denial sphere (and I mean politically based denial, not scientific scepticism, or natural scepticism from ignorance) might be more important than climate scientists have currently recognised. The big factors do seem to have been captured, and in most cases quantified satisfactorily enough to build consistent theories around.
    * Clouds. There is an awful lot of literature on clouds. Most of it hasn’t reached the MSM as yet.
    * Chaos. Just because mathematical chaos is a feature of climate systems (at least it seems highly likely in the cases of interest to humans), it does not follow that prediction is impossible. Monckton has implied as much and is entirely wrong on the point. For example, the well-known Lorenz equations have chaotic behaviour. That doesn’t stop us from identifying the “shape” of the strange attractors present, and indeed the shape gives a level of predictive power not possible otherwise. If the attractor is robust to parameter changes in the equations, it means that it is a stable feature with explanatory power. Chaos is not the same as random.

    Finally, a few geologists, economists and statisticians who should know better, crap on about how climate models aren’t evidence. A climate model is an experimental set-up, where the basic physics and chemistry equations are solved numerically. One thing that a climate model can do is establish when something is missing from our understanding. They can also establish that a plausible idea actually has merit, and that it justifies further fieldwork to gather geologic evidence that might not have otherwise seemed relevant. We use mathematical models pretty much everywhere else in the natural sciences, including biology, so arbitrarily deciding what is an acceptable practice in one scientific endeavour is not acceptable in climate science smacks of rhetoric not analysis.

    Got a bit riled today after reading yet another stupid article by yet another hack journo. Had to vent.

  12. @sHx

    I am truly a tree-hugger at heart and mind. But this CAGW scare is completely dominating the Green agenda.

    I’m not sure what CAGW stands for, but your use of the qualifier “scare” renders the rest of your sentence moot. You imply that there is nothing to fear. There is ample to fear, and based purely on what you have disclosed about your prior knowledge, I find it hard to see how you could now have the insight to oppose your inferences to those of people who have devoted their lives to studying climate and its proxies. I very much doubt you could spend three minutes on your feet discussing the work of CERES or energy budgets, or the tranches of radiation affected by rises in CO2 inventories before a scientific panel.

    For all I know, you like trees and nature. That doesn’t make you an environmentalist, still less an ecologist or someone qualified to malign the work of the world’s best resourced scientific bodies.

    Concern over AGW is quite correct becuse it is foundational. Changing the climate is an exercise in terraforming. We know that quite modest changes in a biome — removing a top predator or damming a river for example can have dramatic effects on that biome. How much more serious would it be to change the temperature and precipitation in the system on a longterm basis in one direction? What you are saying is that conducting a gross longterm experiment in the basic settings of the planetary ecosystem is not key to environmental policy.

    The fact reamins that the quality of the current climate anomaly is unprecendented not merely in the period since the Younger Dryas (13000 BP) or the Late Miocene (about 9,000,000 BP) when the antecedents to humanity first appeared, but as far as we can tell, in all geological time. The End Permian extinction event, generally regarded as the granddaddy of them all was orders of magnitude slower and came off a cooler base than that applying in 1750. No rational person who had the beginnings of a grasp of ther forces being summoned would call that a scare — and yet you, who assert that the science is in doubt, want us to be relaxed about it. Abbott declaring his confidence that huymanity can sort it out is not being optimistic. It’s being recklessly panglossian. He reveals himself as someone who would trade human interest for his short term political advantage. He is a dangerous moron.

    What if we had split atom ten, twenty or thirty years earlier?

    The analogy fails. My counterfactual was feasible given the technology of the time and could have been justfied given the knowledge at the time and the dominance within the world of the US. Yours is not.

  13. the manufacture of ignorance

    when lippman referred to the manufacture of consent he did so in the context of propaganda and control through media in soceity, and in a guided and well thought out way
    when chomsky and hermann used the concept they also supported this guided and well thought out manipulation of the public through media and the powerful institutions of soceity and globally

    so john, is the ‘manufacture of ignorance’ you refer to purposeful and managed do you think, by powerful elements in our soceities and globally?

  14. Look up Bonner and Associates and you’ll see astroturfing as a consultancy business. If astroturfing isn’t manufacturing of ignorance it must be a close second.

  15. well i did … and i discovered at Bonner and Associates there is grassroots and grasstops now,
    the meaning of grassroots, unbeknown to me, had already begun its decline into meaninglessness,
    the language is so quickly muddied and absorbed

  16. @Andrew. As it happens I’m writing a book chapter on the US-Australia FTA at this very moment, and I came across this quote from the the the New York Times, February 14, 2004 editorial, which sounds as if it is channeling Bob Brown

    The deal with Australia is a huge setback in the process of liberalizing global agricultural trade. Poor nations whose only viable exports are agricultural goods are hampered by excessive protectionism. And by making a deal with Australia that leaves out sugar, Washington has jeopardized chances for meaningful progress on a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the latest round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization. As part of this effort to lower trade barriers, developing countries are rightly insisting that rich nations stop subsidizing their farmers and open up their markets to competition.

    The agreement sends a chilling message to the rest of the world. Even when dealing with an allied nation with similar living standards, the administration, under pressure from the Congress, has opted to continue coddling the sugar lobby, rather than dropping the most indefensible form of protectionism. This will only embolden the case of those around the world who argue that globalization is a rigged game.

  17. @Donald Oats

    Good post.

    What is disturbing about a lot of people who ought to know better, is that many seem to think that the climate models are simply ‘econometric’ type statistical models where sufficient numbers of free parameters are estimated until the equations fit the historicial data. If they were, they would correctly be characterised as probably rubbish. Because they are. instead, models constructed using various known physical and chemical equations and an understanding of the interactions taking place, and that the numerical results then fit the historical results quite well is impressive evidence that they know what they are doing. Having validated their climate models, when they conduct counterfactuals without Anthropogenic greenhouse gases and find significantly different result to recent historical data, this too is evidence that should be taken very seriously.

  18. @sHx

    Having read to your posts, including your statement “I still have utmost trust in science and scientific method,” I’m wondering whether you know anything about science at all.

    As far as I can see, if you have utmost trust in the scientific method yet find climate science wanting you would want to have some kind of real reason for doing so, that is, a reason that fits within the trusted scientific method. That means that you would need to find specific errors – in data, methodology or logic – in specific papers and publish these finding and let them succeed or fail in stark gaze of peer review. That’s how science works, and for good reasons. It’s not about making claims, you have to back it up against the best.

    On the other hand, you might not dispute the results of individual papers, but dispute synthesised reviews like the IPCC reports. In this case, you would want do demonstrate that the IPCC misrepresented the papers that they used, that they ignored important papers that are contrary to their conclusions, or that they have drawn conclusion that are not logically supported by the papers they quote. Despite the large output the IPCC has produced and the attention they have got, no more than a few quibbling errors have been found to date, so good luck. However, if you can knock them over on any substantive point, you will achieve something like instant God status in the anti-GW movement, so don’t hold back unless you have a problem with celebrity, money and status.

    Alternatively, if you think that the science may be ok, but the consequences won’t be that bad, then you should recognise that you aren’t talking climate science any more at all: you’re in areas of personal preferences, public policy, economics, politics, newspaper columns, and the like. Apart from the physical assessment of mitigation strategies, the discussion of social and economic impacts and responses isn’t climate science at all. If your dispute is in this area, you aren’t correct to claim that climate science is wrong, you are disputing economics or something else.

    What I find telling is your statement “I simply refuse to be afraid of the future.” This is a psychological statement, a personal manifesto. It suggests that you may have conflated climate science with your inner emotional realm. Whether you want to be scared has absolutely nothing to do with climate science, but it is significant is that you see that as driving your rejection of climate science. Climate science stands on the scientific evidence; how you react emotionally or what you chose to do just isn’t part of the scientific evidence.

    As I and others have noted, the fact that libertarians, a bunch of people who believe strongly that government should be strictly limited, have almost to a man decided that climate science is wrong, suggests either of two things. Firstly, they may be a uniquely intelligent and perceptive bunch, who can beat trained and peer-reviewed scientists at their own game. If this is true, we should be putting these guys to work on just about everything that needs doing, forthwith. On the other hand, they may just be a group who are so emotionally attached to a position that they are unable to detect their inverted syllogism: (loosely) government always makes things worse, “therefore” anything that apparently requires government action can’t be right, “therefore” global warming is false. It’s too much of a coincidence – the science being wrong and that fitting with libertarian ideals – isn’t it? Personally, I would have thought there would be at least a few who would say that the science looks right, (or even more honestly, I have no genuine reason to disagree!) but they’d still prefer to take their chances without any government action. I’d find this at least intellectually honest, even though I’d still disagree. But, no, what we have from virtually every one of them is an outright denial of climate science supported by a farrago of irrelevant, insubstantial, or just-plain-whacky points that seem change regularly and often contradict each other.

    So, are you following a similar trajectory: is your “refusal to be scared” driving a rejection of climate science? It seems so to me, but maybe that’s something you need to answer for yourself. Secondly, do you really dispute climate science, or just some of the more outrageous personal doom scenarios that aren’t really part of the science at all?

  19. developing countries are rightly insisting that rich nations stop subsidizing their farmers and open up their markets to competition

    With Free Trade Agreements the rights of the Third World must be protected against the rights of the developed world. But at the same time, growth in the Third World must not come at the expense of workers in the developed world.

    So the competition (that is barrier free) has to be fair and not based on low safety standards, punishing hours of work, and pauperism.

    In Indonesia, workers making Nike sports shoes, do not receive wages sufficient for them to purchase their own products.

    Indonesian Nike workers cannot pay US$100 for a pair of Nike shoes.

    There is nothing in trade theory that prevents tariffs against unfair competition. The New York Times editorial appears to be encouraging people to turn a blind eye to this circumstance.

    Tariffs (or Tobin Tax or other device) may be required to ensure Third World development.

  20. Jim Birch, I think you’ll find our very own Terje (NOT pronounced ter – jay!) identifies with libertarianism, and accepts the general scientific principles behind anthropogenic climate change.

  21. Interesting quote from Jeffrey Sachs.
    “But then I recalled that this line of attack – charging a scientific conspiracy to drum up “business” for science – was almost identical to that used by The Wall Street Journal and others in the past, when they fought controls on tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, and other dangerous pollutants. In other words, their arguments were systematic and contrived, not at all original to the circumstances.”…..
    “We are witnessing a predictable process by ideologues and right-wing think tanks and publications to discredit the scientific process. Their arguments have been repeatedly disproved for 30 years – time after time – but their aggressive methods of public propaganda succeed in causing delay and confusion.”….

  22. @wilful

    Terje appears to be fairly ambivalent about climate science to me though he seems to have shifted a bit recently. I’ve never seen him argue against any of the total nutters but I may have missed it. OTOH I don’t think he’s very science oriented so may not feel it’s his place.

    Libertarianism seems to me to be inherently anti-science: issues are decided by reference to the manifesto/abstract theory rather than letting the evidence speak. The idea that complex systems are reducible to simple principles via profound insight is a kind of pre-scientific way of thinking about the world, and ourselves. It may be true in some cases but you’d want to test it piecemeal. So far, biological systems, eg us, have typically shown more nuance and complexity the further we drill down.

  23. John, it seems that once again you have resorted to an almost childish characterisation of the right in an attempt to once again further your own progressive agenda. One may even argue your enduring belief in market inefficiency and assertions that market liberalism has indeed run out of steam may be construed as evidence of the ignorance that often plagues the left. Indeed, one must raise the question as to what was the purpose of this blog? Clearly, your condescending and patronizing attitude to those who have views and ideologies that differ from your own, and the almost childish way you characterise anyone that disagrees with you (eg. gullible, denier, ignorant etc.) is evidence that this blog only serves to stroke your profoundly inflated ego.

  24. @Jim Birch
    I certainly identify very strongly with her views on certain issues. I think she has definitely reinvigorated the conservative base in America. Nevertheless, do I think she would be a suitable candidate for the presidency? At this stage, probably not. However, I would much prefer her over the moderates in the Republican party such as John McCain.

  25. The “disemvowelling” of Tony G’s post is the funniest thing Ive seen all day…..(it makes about as much sense as his undisemvowlled posts.)


  26. @jquiggin
    JQ – globalisation is a rigged game….rigged by the rich nations for the rich nations.

    It goes like this…”open your doors so we can be free to enter and extract your resources…we, rich nations will in turn provide jobs (not many) at very poor wages (because it helps our bottom line to lower our costs). That is all we will offer because we do not pay tax in your poor third world country because you have made it a tax free haven to get us to come here. A few jobs, you say, is better than none. We encourage you to think this way especially. We use the IMF to do this job for us. Thus we get to keep even more of our profits. Its a win win. You get a few paltry sub subsistence jobs you didnt have before, but we make a lot more from your resources, which you do not have the technology to develop. Thus we pay you a pittance to strip your resources. When it comes to agricultural produce, us rich nations know we should be seen to be opening our own doors, but the farmers lobby is stalking the halls of congress and threatening our own political careers so instead we have made a law that means agricultural subsidies are now not to be known at as agricultural subsidies but instead we will call them marketing subsidies. We will still insist that you can only export quotas to us as well so as not to upset our own farmers. That means our doors are still shut but yours should be open to globalisation.”

    Rigged? Its rigged alright.

  27. @Alice
    And globalisation is rigged precisely because, like labour markets, the negotiating playing field is not level….it never was and it never will be. Globalisation will not ever bring equality of negotiation powers to markets. That is where market ideology fails us all. It will never deliver the level playing field it purports to deliver. Insteadv it will deliver only greater inequalities and an increasing amount of global destitution excluded from world “markets.”

    What gloalisation really means is “if you have the marbles you can play. If you dont you are out of the game.”

  28. Jim Birch@26

    You don’t know what your talking about. Libertarians are nor reductionists as you implied. I liken the study of climate science to economics.

    Here is paragragh from a famous Libertarian, Friedrich August von Hayek, who presented a lecture on “The Pretense of knowledge”

    Here is paragraph for you to absorb:

    “The correlation between aggregate demand and total employment, for instance, may only be approximate, but as it is the only one on which we have quantitative data, it is accepted as the only causal connection that counts. On this standard there may thus well exist better “scientific” evidence for a false theory, which will be accepted because it is more “scientific”, than for a valid explanation, which is rejected because there is no sufficient quantitative evidence for it.”

    I think Hayek proposition ” The Pretense of knowledge” is far better at encompassing the the underlying problems we face in resolving the climate change debate and its convuluted misinformation campaigns. Agnotology only partly grasps the issue and now that the AGW advocates have claimed it as their own it will be adopted in the pejorative sense.

    JQ you said

    “The big political problem is that while competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. What is needed here is a return to ideology, and a project to move beyond day-to-day management and offer the ‘light on the hill’ of a positive social transformation, based on justice and equality.”

    Obama and Rudd are not good managers IMHO. They just happend to be around to ride the wave of dissatisfaction (on the rebound) of the people, with those on the right whose power became entrenched and dangerous. We can only thank democracy for that.

    The “retun to ideology”, reminded me of the great inspirational speeches of Churchill, Musollini and Hitler. I don’t think much of any of these guys. They appealed to peoples gullibility and search for security. They inspired their nations to war. All these men had tremendous persuasive powers and in the process killed many of their people. I just read a few of their speeches, they are ideological poetry.

    I can understand your need to counter the ideological style of Mockton et al, but is this the answer ? In my opinion it is not only a waste of time but dangerous. Justice and Equality will come second to ideological goals. If you still find the need to pursue this goal here is a start up guide:

    I think you should take Barry Brooks ( Brave new climate blog) approach, who I thought presented well when he debated Mockton and came across credible and with much humility. A credit to him. Barry evolving approach to the climate change challenge is commendable and in fact one of his recent blog topics displays more of the same even though I may disagree on some issues, his approach is non ideological.

    I think you should explore his approach.

  29. Re JQ at #48, was this “ritual disemvowellment” (after the Japanese) ?
    All I seem to get is this sense of consonant disruption; a complete apostrophe as one would expect from a radical (semi) colonostomy, as one would expect.
    Colonostomy bags for vowell removal won’t work tho and we know that the government is sure to institute a “syntax” that would perturb my gramma greatly, poor old love.

  30. Perhaps a return to science is the light on the hill; the engine for social justice; the policy a sane party has to push.

  31. That’s true Jim, Terje’s libertarian delusionalism is not in the broad scientific drift or economic aspects of climate change. It’s less subtle than that – Terje believes that the best place for the younger player to study climate science before spouting off on it would be at Steve McIntyre’s famed antiscience website. This is undeniably, absolutely, world-class delusionalism!


    You don’t know what your talking about. Libertarians are nor reductionists as you implied. I liken the study of climate science to economics.

    is I think an instant classic. I expect to see more of this calibre of work from you.

    Now you then go on to offer an interesting Hayek quote thank you, but it’s meaningless in the context you’ve deployed it (climate science). More generally it’s meaningless to fret about that idea unless you can point to the existence of an alternative hypothetical correlation and explain why quantitative data in its support should be unavailable even with a lot more sweaty effort from yours truly. In the absence of the other hypothesis isn’t Hayek’s idea subsumed almost wholly today by the concept of Type 1 error in statistical hypothesis testing?

    In closing Andre I not only loved your “science = economics” put-down of poor Jim but also greatly admired the humility with which you tendered some worthy advice to JQ, I’m guessing he’ll be quite grateful for that.

  32. @paul walter
    I think actually Paul just by looking at Tony G’s “disemvowelled” was indeed the vowels that were disemvowelled…not the consonants. There is in fact no consonant disruption…but then…. by disembowelling the vowels it does have the unintended consequence of consonant disruption anyway.

    Thats not such a bad thing is it?

  33. @frankis
    The first step in convincing people is to sternly reprimand the subject as a father would a small child. Once the subject has been put in their place you can then tender some guiding wisdom. You can if you read carefully see two masters of this approach above.

    Andre :
    Jim Birch@26
    You don’t know what your talking about……..

    Blah Blah……he continues then……

    I think you should explore his approach.


    EMH :
    John, it seems that once again you have resorted to an almost childish characterisation of the right in an attempt to once again further your own progressive agenda….. Blah Blah…..Clearly, your condescending and patronizing attitude…… evidence that this blog only serves to stroke your profoundly inflated ego.

    Opps he forgot to round it off with some patronising advice.

  34. @Michael
    Yes Michael – Ive long since recognised the rudeness of the (degree of rudeness qualified by degree of severity of disease??) right. Shame they dont recognise it themselves. Is it some sort of unwarranted superioritu complex bred, educated, nurtured or socialised into them?

    I wont say “all” right. Just the ones that come in here on a mission to search, locate and destroy…Darth Vader style? Patronising parent to child style?

    Well it just doesnt really hit the mark or have much effect does it? They could try a decent intellectual argument instead with valid ideas and reasonable arguments – they could take a leaf from conservative speeches of old.

    We are lacking a certain elegance in this field (conservative ideologies) and I wouldnt mind its return from beyond the bounds of sanity, from tribal degeneration and beliefs.

    Might I suggest the young conservatives are very much letting the older conservatives down? They just dont seem to have what it takes in debating elegance or coherence and continuity of thought.

    JQ is a very good host. This repeated “young right green turk” thing does get awfully tiring.

  35. Some of the conservatives of old have ended up well to the left of the new generation.
    I think the reason so many people find themselves railing against the AGW theory is that it is profoundly confronting. I don’t know who really derives comfort and gain from it expounding it. Maybe some on the fringes of the left do want to challenge industrialisation (there is always some grain of truth in successful propaganda), but a much more likely explanation is that excepting AGW will require a lifestyle change and a reordering of the economy and this is beyond the pale especially to older males (not all of course (I have to qualify my remarks because many are very sensitive (especially the ones who engage in ad hominem arguments (at the same time as accusing others of conducting ad hominem arguments)))

  36. I like Charles’ suggestion. I remember being inspired as a child by Carl Sagan’s talk of science as a “candle in the darkness” and a defense against the “demon haunted world”.

    Unfortunately, either these ideas just don’t have that widespread appeal, or ways have not been found to make them reach a wider audience. Finding a way around this seems to me a very important project.

  37. @Stephen L
    Indeed, a book on my shelves. Two books by Robert Park (a physicist) are in a similar vein to Sagan’s: “Voodoo Science”, and “Superstition”, and I can recommend them both.



  38. JQ

    This is a very good post – and has clearly touched a nerve!

    It seems to me that what this and a lot of other posts show is that climate change is the great challenge for the next few decades (at least), and that this challenge is profoundly confronting. I can see that social democrats are slightly more comfortable with accepting the challenge, in that they have no rooted objection to policy driven by strong government or community action.

    I wonder, though, if the reactions should not lead you to re-think your estimate that the costs of dealing with climate change will be relatively modest. Not only will they clearly be politically and socially challenging, but the science is increasingly pointing to the real difficulty of keeping warming below threatening levels without drastic action (eg closing down coal power generation within a few years), and to the very large costs of mitigation or adaptation – in the absence of rapid action. As an instance, is it realistic to assume (as I understand Stern does) that the cost will be a minor element given continued growth, when growth will require energy (and materials) we need to limit if we are to avoid further warming?

  39. @Stephen L

    And as for the northern hemisphere freezing – well after the world experienced its hottest January since measurements began, its now clear February will be similar.

    Indeed It’s a pity Roy Spencer’s graphing tool doesn’t show the early months of 1998 because then we could easily see how February 2010 compares with February 1998 which has nearly the record highest lower troposphere anomaly. It would be interesting to see how 2010 progresses compared with 1998 which holds the lower troposphere record.

  40. sHx:

    One of the things that really annoys me about the AGW debate and forces me to remain a non-interested by-stander is the way the debate has become politicised.

    So who do you think started the politicization? The scientists stopped debating the important scientific issues with each other long ago. It’s only political types who want to keep debating those issues.

    Even those who complain about politicisation of the debate do it unashamedly.

    So what choice do they have?

    BTW, does sHx answer many questions? He seems to be far more interested in pontificating than debating.

  41. @Peter T

    The estimates of modest cost are contingent upon action taking place early enough for adapting alternative technologies to be viable. In the late 80s this discussion took place at great length, and in Australia at least, culminated in a public document based on the Greenhouse ’88 public workshops. We knew enough then to spend a few shekels upon building some options into the “system” – alternative energy, efficiency improvements, transport sector reforms, building code reforms and so on. But for the best part, we ignored the advice of the day and fiddle around the edges. Twenty years later and we now have a lot more instrumental records pointing towards the more extreme end of the assessments made in the 80s. However, we are politically in a worse position now because not only does a Bayesian analysis of the instrumental record point to the higher end of the risk exposure, we have 20 fewer years in which to make adjustments. Technology is more advanced which is a mitigating factor in the positive direction, but then population size and carbon footprint per capita are counterweights in the negative direction.

    BTW, all I mean by the Bayesian analysis is that as new information comes to bear we may update our assessment of risk on in a statistical manner. Imagine flipping a coin many times; before the first flip the a priori probability of “heads” is 1/2, if we assume that the coin is unbiased. As we keep flipping the coin and accumulating data on the frequency of heads to tails – and more detailed info like the number of heads in a row before a tail shows up – we might notice that we are getting a decidely lopsided frequency of heads to tails. The extreme case would be that we keep getting heads. At some point the natural question is am I just extremely flukey in getting only heads, or is the coin biased and by how much? Bayesian techniques provide a mathematically consistent framework for updating our best guess as to the fluke vs bias, based on the trials we are conducting with the coin. Think of temperature anomalies and a similar principle applies.

    Anyway, I am fairly convinced by my reading of the scientific literature that in the here and now AGW is panning out as a pretty solid theory. The problem for policy wonks is how to take action now that reflects our updated knowledge of risk exposure. The longer the delay before taking significant action the fewer time-constrained options that remain available for future action. My previous experience in other technological areas is that while a lot can happen in 20 years, the first 10 or so are the fragile ones in technology adoption. Look at mobile phones as a classic example, or computer storage/power/memory, or the internet in the popular form of the web, new car technologies including the recent s/w pedal-to-the-metal fiasco, etc. From early adopter to mass consumer is around 3 product generations before product maturity is reached, give or take. In the mobile phone world the 4th gen is well under development, whereas 3G started more than 10 years ago! Rollout of 3G as a mobile network suitable for mass consumer markets was more recent however. Handsets have undergone a few more cycles and some convergence of PDA/computer/camera and other digital devices, but the principle is similar.

  42. I love neologisms,what a beauty agnotology is. I’m pretty sure the right aren’t its only exponents.I have been hunting all over the internet for ideas related to it and totally coincidentally found a great phrase here yesterday
    The phrase is “usable ignorance” as opposed to usable knowledge.
    What a handy thing to be able to manufacture!
    You can use ignorance, especially of details in the future, to argue any position.
    My mind immediately went to the clip of Andrew Bolt quizzing the ABCs Robyn Williams about the possibility of Sydney being 50 ft underwater at the end of the century.
    Williams goes “Yes it could”.
    Bolt goes “Bulldust!”
    Neither knows the answer to any degree of certainty,but hell of a lot of people stiil want to argue about it.
    All my love to the regulars here.. you are tough, but you are quality with a capital Q.

  43. But, Sarah Palin Fan, while neither Robyn Williams or Andrew Bolt are climate change experts and able to talk definitively about sea level rises, there are a range of possibilities and probabilities, depending on a whole range of things, some of which we are very confident about, some less so, which means we can be more or less confident about certian ranges of sea level rise.

    50 feet (~20 metres) by 2100? highly unlikely (but still possible). 2 metres by 2100? Quite possible. 20 metres by 2500? Probable.

  44. JQ post was controversial and I will admit I may have come across a little patronsing (Tx Frankis and Michael you have done a good job of returning the favour) and I apologise to JQ for my tone. I still think an ideological war should be avoided, I do not think it will yield good results and I thought this was unusual for JQ, for whom I have a lot of respect. I made my point but will do it with more humility next time.


    Hayek concept is meaningless in your ideological world. I can see your point. I am sure there is a job waiting for you at a government think tank looking for scientific consensus.

    You have reasserted Jim’s claim, but have offered nothing to support it. Hayek lecture illustrates that Jim’s and your claim about Libertarians is off the mark.

    On AGW, I accept the the theory and would agree with some precautionary action to minimise consequences of AGW. I dislike the top down approach to AGW. I don’t trust ideological salesman, it dirties the waters and makes a mockery of democracy. This is the main scource of my skeptcism.

  45. @Andre

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “reductionist” in this context, could you explain?

    2. It’s all very well that Heyak thinks that “aggregate demand and total employment” may be accidental correlated, but what’s the connection? Could you spell it out for me?

    There’s a rhetorical problem with the quoting selected statements from revered sources as if they will instantly illuminate an issue when they don’t. If you don’t actually argue from shared territory you start to sound like a door-to-door evangelist.

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