Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Issue of the year: intellectual dishonesty and ignorance

Climate change is, of course, the issue of the year. But to say why, it is necessary to look at the reasons for the poor outcomes for the Copenhagen conference.

It is easy to understand why poverty is a significant part of the problem. So easy, in fact, that it loomed large in the conference: even the complacent rich countries could understand this. If I am struggling to survive from day to day, how can I find the luxury to contemplate what the world will look like in fifty years? The necessity to survive can drastically narrow one's focus, as most people throughout history can tell you.

That's the issue writ large. Although it would be dishonest to suggest that it's a life-or-death question for everyone below 'developed nation' status, it remains that the worse off one is, the harder it is to broaden one's focus. Conversely - in theory at least - it is easier to adopt a longer-term perspective where self, heritage, and legacy stand a good chance of persisting.

That's not to say there's no intellectual dishonesty among those who are not so rich, yet have some wiggle room. They will inevitably reach for what they can get. But they do not wield the power of those in rich nations.

But why are the richest nations mired - to a large extent - in inaction? Part of the problem is reflected in what afflicts two of the more recalcitrant (albeit advancing) members of the rich club, Australia and the US. In both countries, it is because the politics of opposition reflects - to far greater an extent than is warranted by the facts - resistance to the very notion of climate change. Ignorance exists, but there is little to comfort such people other than the thought that others are making the decisions, and carrying the debate, for them.

Far greater then, as an issue, is intellectual dishonesty on the part of those whose duty it is to understand better.

I have heard enough recently from such people to make me sick. It is largely political, inasmuch as those who argue the contrarian case are largely politically conservative. And they are doing it wilfully, with no desire to properly understand science, nor how scientific theory and debate works, nor how the massive weight of evidence has accumulated over the past forty years.

It is simply put as follows. Yes, scientific understanding is a matter of constant adaption to changing facts, a revising of theories and, at times, paradigm shifts that are tantamount to revolutionary. But the way this happens is via an accumulation of evidence over time that comes to clearly delineate the new thought. But in this case, the fringe thoughts - and 'evidence' is fragmenting, and slowly dissipating over time, not uniting and increasing in significance. Each piece of 'evidence' on the margins has slowly disintegrated when further evidence arrives.

Why call it intellectual dishonesty? Because these climate change 'sceptics' have usurped the term without reference to how scepticism responds to further evidence. Because these people are mostly of a political bent. Because these people claim the right to deny the substance of the scientific debate, while clinging to the propriety of their own very particular articulation of what constitutes scientific debate. And because these intellectually dishonest people have had an effect on climate change outcomes throughout the world in the past three years that is vastly disproportionate to a) the accumulation of independent evidences; and b) the accumulation of independent analyses and voices.

To them, I ask: what burden do you place on your children and grandchildren with your intellectual dishonesty?

Are you prepared to sign your name to statements of your decisions and their ramifications, so that your descendants will know how to regard their parent and grandparent in years to come? 'Misguided' is one thing, but it is another to wilfully foist such a poor legacy on coming generations. How will your self and heritage be regarded in years to come?

Grow up. Think like an adult.