July 1st, 2014
in Op Ed
Comment Threads about Global Warming Show the American Mind at Work, Like A Reality-TV Horror Show
by Fabius Maximus, FabiusMaximus.com
Summary: At 418 comments and still going strong, a comment thread at Prof Curry’s website shows the American mind at work on one of our most important public policy issues. It’s a sad spectacle, deserving your attention. We can do better, if only we would try.
This is a follow-up to "Did NASA and NOAA dramatically alter US climate history to exaggerate global warming?", 28 June 2014. It is one of a series of posts using popular media as a mirror in which we can more clearly see who we are, and what we’re becoming.
I strongly recommend reading the comments to "Skeptical of skeptics: is Steve Goddard right?" by Judith Curry (Prof, GA Inst Tech) at her website, Climate Etc. It’s a typical discussion about politicized science in America, with comments by scientists, talented amateurs, and extremist partisans. The latter dominate, with anti-science their primary theme.
If you step back from the specific issue, this thread reads like countless others in recent years by the Right (e.g. about evolution, the extreme example) — and by the Left (e.g., genetically-modified food and nuclear power). And by both the Left and Right about climate and economics. A common element is people who have little or no understanding of the subject, but confidently proclaim the relevant scientists to be fools, crooks, or charlatans (this is a defining characteristic of the public climate wars, with activists on both sides so condemning scientists on the “other side”).
Political leaders cherish such followers, their vanguard of high-energy “useful idiots” (an essential concept for political engineers, origin unknown). They’re easily directed and immune to rebuttal by fact or logic (they don’t listen to their opponents, who are misguided if not evil). As a chorus they entertain the faithful and can often shout down saner voices.
“Then the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of 'Four legs good, two legs bad!' which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.”
This is a manifestation of an deeper ill in American life, anti-intellectualism. The best-known descriptions of this are two works by Richard Hofstadter. The comment thread at Climate Etc shows both of these traits proudly displayed.
Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963). It includes the belief that everyman can understand technical matters as well as experts, without bothering with years of study. It’s as or more serious now than in 1963.
Twenty-first century philistines, suffering from a lack of imagination and curiosity, have seized upon understandable economic anxieties since the financial crash of 2008, to shepherd an increasingly large flock of American sheep into the livestock freight carrier Pulitzer prize winning historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “anti-intellectualism.” … The American mind is swimming in icy waters …
— "America’s New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism", David Masciotra (journalist), The Daily Beast, 9 March 2014
"The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Harpers Magazine, November 1964 — To the Right-wing climate scientists are not just wrong, but in an active conspiracy to deceive us — they “fake”, fiddle”, and “rig” the data. Excerpt:
Paranoia has a long history in the American polity. American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. … I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. … It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Paranoia and esteeming ignorance form a noxious and mutually-reenforcing combination that might cripple our ability to respond to the rapidly-changing world of the 21st century. Combined with our amnesia about the past and clouded vision of the present, it results in an Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop broken in every phase. This ignorance might negate much of our strength, such as our ability to innovate, our ability to integrate people from other societies, our strong social cohesion, and the vitality of our culture.
Powerful but stupid is unlikely to be the winning play in the 21st century. We were better in the past — see these examples — and can be great again.