Thursday, June 24, 2010

The problem with morality

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading  The Deniers:  The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud*      *and those who were too afraid to do so.  Reading this book has managed to make me feel really down on the whole climate change debate in general, and on important science in particular.  The issue is that finding truth is so damn difficult; every time I think an idea looks conclusive either way I find a new exception or new expert that has some very good reasons why it isn't.  It seems less like a problem with climate science and more like a problem with morality being involved in scientific debate.

The issue is this:  If you are utterly convinced that a particular scientific result is extremely important it is reasonable to think that it is more important to promote that result than promote the truth.  Should someone who firmly believes that human civilization is headed for catastrophe spend as much time explaining the weaknesses of climate change models as they do the disastrous consequences if they are right?  Surely the answer is that correct action can be more important than impartiality or truth so people can be justified in all kinds of deceptive or biased behaviour when action is necessary.  The problem of course is that when many people feel this way about a topic on both sides a neutral bystander who simply wants unbiased information will find it nearly impossible to find.

A good example of this is statements issued by the IPCC in their various reports on climate change.  There are many scientists who absolutely agree with the general consensus that AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) is real and a valid concern, and yet find that the reports issued by the IPCC contain information that is not scientifically valid.  It does not invalidate all the science that has been done or change the fact of AGW, but it does mean that misinformation is being published under an extremely powerful, prestigious flag and people will end up badly misinformed.  Note that I am not at all ignorant of the shenanigans on the other side of the fence - industry supported science (perhaps 'science'?) isn't better, and is probably much worse.

Of course the IPCCs bending of the facts is modest compared to real pundits like Al Gore or Martin Durkin.  It is clear that people decided that climate change was a serious problem and decided to make the film An Inconvenient Truth that used junk science, ridiculous fearmongering and real distortions of the actual dangers from climate change to get press.  Those people almost certainly felt like they were doing the right thing because they were educating the public about a real threat even though they obviously weren't trying to give anything resembling a reasonable picture to the audience since the real picture isn't actually that scary.  Right on its heels followed The Great Global Warming Swindle which employed junk science, even greater distortions of the truth and intriguing political stories to discredit the climate change theory.

People on both sides of the debate feel like the issue is so important that it is morally justified to use nearly any tactic to get people on board with their interpretation of the facts.  *Both* sides purport to be saving future generations, one from a climate holocaust, the other from poverty.  There are people who really do simply want to get the truth out but the lines of communication are clogged with information from people who honestly believe that the debate is settled and the only thing left is winning the public relations war.


  1. The idea that trying to stop global warming will result in actual poverty in first world countries boggles my mind.

  2. Another topic which really illustrates this point well is abortion.

    If you truly believe in an immortal soul, and that life begins at conception, then abortion is murdering babies. I know how I would react if I saw someone wade into a daycare with a chainsaw. (hint: poorly)

    It's why I have a hard time demonizing right-to-lifers in the same way as most other "traditional values" campaigners. It's complicated.

  3. It shouldn't. The contention is not that mild cutbacks like Kyoto will cause poverty in first world nations because that is obviously false. Keep in mind though that Kyoto is hopelessly, uselessly inadequate to stop global warming. We need to cut emissions by a monstrous % to do that, and Kyoto is only a mild limit to *growth*. There are people in the environmental lobby that advocate immediate, immense cuts to carbon, like 80%. This would actually have a major effect in stopping global warming and would demolish the economies of all nations, including the first world. To summarize the position of those who make this sort of argument:

    Mild reductions (Kyoto): Mild negative effects in developing countries, minimal effects in developed countries.

    Substantial reductions (Stop all growth of CO2 emissions): Mild negative effects in developed nations, extremely problematic to developing nations.

    Massive reductions (cut to 20% of current output): Extremely problematic to developed nations, catastrophic to developing nations.

    If you think we should cut emissions short right now then there is every reason to think that global poverty will ensue. If you think that we should curtain emissions where it is most efficient to do so and work hard on developing cleaner technologies that can compete with fossil fuels and slowly integrate those solutions over time then you basically agree with me (and plenty of others, of course).

    If you don't believe that there are people advocating emissions cuts that would be catastrophic to developing nations and really brutal on developed nations then you should wander about the internet a bit, they are out there.

    Both sides attack straw men. The deniers attack the radical greenie who wants to shut down every coal plant and car in the world and the greenies attack the oil man who wants cars to be less efficient to drive up oil prices. Both of these straw men are actually very rare, but neither of them is fictitious, sadly.

  4. Snidely: Yeah, exactly. There are some real issues that spontaneous abortions and miscarriages could be classified under manslaughter if the pregnant woman did anything that might endanger her fetus, which makes the idea of personhood at conception a bit insane legally, but I still find that particular view at least defensible. I am definitely against it, but it isn't like capital punishment which has absolutely no redeeming value.

  5. I think a lot more decisions are made by a few very rich people who don't care about anything but getting more rich than you seem to think. If you look for information in support of radical changes to society to limit global warming you'll find a lot of well-meaning people who think it is the only way to save the world. If you look for information against it I think you'll find very few of those.

    I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have bought some of the stories such as "scientists invented global warming to get funding." But just like the typical 22-year-old bisexual female playing WoW is a 14-year-old boy, there is no reason to think that a person who is just expressing their opinion on the web is not being paid to do so. The denier side has people who spread doubt on internet message boards as a full time job. I don't think the pro-side has that.

    The thing is, no one really has a motivation to try to convince people that global warming is real if they don't believe it. No one is going to pay them to do so, and in order to think that you need to take radical action to change behaviour, you have to first believe that behaviour change is very necessary. One side simply deserves a bigger grain of salt than the other.

    But I think the issue is that that you are looking for something conclusive to begin with. You say that every time something looks conclusive there is a new exception. But take a look back at your defense of Newtonian mechanics (which we know to be wrong). An exception does not invalidate the usefulness of a theory, particularly when the theory is meant to predict medium-sized things we care about. Exceptions and unanswered questions will always pop up, and with the current rate of scientific progress, they will pop up faster and faster.

    When it comes to the real world we have to not worry so much about being right all the time, and instead worry about making the best guess we can. The idea that we need to be right, that we need things to be conclusive, is precisely what the anti-science agenda wants to promote.

  6. I am not convinced. I support cuts to emissions since I see so many good reasons to do so. However, I do think that looking for certainty is a useful exercise since is focuses attention on the fact that we may be wrong. That isn't an excuse not to act on the information we have but it is a acknowledgement that on the issue in question there are uncertainties and guesses that we would do well to address. I also think that the more drastic and costly the action being advocated the more seriously we need to demand certainty from the science backing the action. Whether or not the Higgs Boson exists is of crucial interest to some people but since the fact of its existence or non existence is not driving government policy there is little reason for the average person to seek more certainty.

    There are plenty of people out there who honestly think that radical changes to society to stop/slow CO2 emissions are a serious problem. Depending on your definition of radical I might well be one of those. A hard cap at current emission levels would be quite disruptive to wealthy nations and very harsh on developing nations and those that live there. The really radical suggestions would be catastrophic for developing nations, much more so than global warming has any chance at being. There are plenty of people who are just simply skeptical or uninformed who simply do not believe that climate change is real. They are wrong, but anyone who thinks that everyone who does not believe in climate change is some combination of evil/radical capitalist/on the take is crazy. There are many nonbelievers out there who are not evil, just wrong.

    The pro side has plenty of incredibly misinformed people spewing mountains of rubbish all over message boards on the internet. Whether or not they are paid to do so is irrelevant if they in fact produce prodigious, incorrect arguments for their side. The fact that there exist people on both sides manufacturing incorrect propaganda on a huge scale is the issue, not so much whether or not anyone pays them to do it.

  7. Assume your last assertion there is true. There are people who are making false arguments in favour of climate change.

    Why are they doing so? What motivation do they have for lying? Does that motivation make it more or less likely that they're wrong?

  8. Simple. They believe that climate change is real and extremely dangerous, or that it should be humankind's only priority. They know that random people who are presented with conflicting evidence and dissent among experts are rarely sold on conclusive action. Because of that they portray the evidence as more solid than it is, the models as more credible than they are and attempt to discredit people who are skeptical. They honestly believe that it is far more important to save the world from climate change than it is to present a thoroughly honest, impartial view of the facts. This position is of course supported by the fact that people on the other side of the debate are also being dishonest.

    Note that I think the science is settled *enough* for action to be warranted, and I think that the high profile deniers are drastically outnumbered by the believers, which suggests that climate change by CO2 is most likely correct.

    People want to save the world/gaia/natural order/human race/God's creation and they feel like lying to the unwashed masses to get it done is warranted. While it is easy to defend that stand from a moral perspective it is also a tragedy that people on both sides feel that way and it makes information gathering for the layperson extremely difficult.

  9. "However, I do think that looking for certainty is a useful exercise since is focuses attention on the fact that we may be wrong."

    This is interesting. It sounds a bit like saying we should look for cold things because it focuses our attention on what is hot. The best way to focus attention on the fact that we may be wrong is to always consider being wrong, rather than trying to be definitively right.

    In fact, we know that the best strategy to achieve certainty is to dogmatically discount any evidence that doesn't lead to the conclusions you wish (just as cutting off your leg is a "good" weight loss strategy). This is precisely what the people you are complaining about are doing.

    Obviously you don't advocate that route, but you indicate in your opening paragraph that it is depressing that you can't find anything conclusive on the matter. I think what you mean is that you find it depressing that the level of debate is so poor, and that you feel that people on both sides of the debate are intentionally exaggerating and/or lying in order to get people to follow them.

    But the ultimate question that seems to at the centre of this is whether it is better to tell someone a truth that you believe will lead them to believe a falsehood or it is better to tell someone a lie that you believe will lead them to believe the truth.