Skeptics Conference: An Ideological Battleground

Skeptics Conference: An Ideological Battleground
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Now that the dust has settled over the Skeptics Society conference, the Environmental Wars, it’s easy to see it as a microcosmic skirmish in the ideological war that is subsuming the U.S. (and increasingly the Canadian) debate about climate change.

We at the DeSmogBlog are guilty of sometimes oversimplifying this debate by suggesting that it is occurring between the most accomplished climate scientists in the world (as exemplified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a band of self-interested dissemblers who will do anything to defend the profitable status quo (as exemplified by ExxonMobile and Peabody Energy).

It’s no particular surprise that Exxon and Peabody failed to identify themselves among the participants at the Skeptics conference, but the debate still raged (and rages still) among three camps. In reverse order as they appeared at Caltech conference on the weekend, those three camps are:

Christian Fundamentalists: This group is driven by doctrine and faith. They are sincere, committed and willing to accept that God created the earth 6,000 years ago – apparently with the 100-million-year-old dinosaur fossils already in place. The scientific arguments about climate change are not necessarily compelling in this crowd. They were represented on the weekend by blogger Randy Kirk, whose work can be found at his blog, The Truth About Everything. And they have a frightening amount of influence in the current U.S. administration.

Free Market Fundamentalists: This group is increasingly led by High Priests of Commerce who reign in modern libertarian churches – think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute or  the National Centre for Public Policy Research. These folks are just as ideologically blinded as the Christians, so devout is their faith in the free market system. (At the conference on the weekend, the avowed libertarian TV personality John Stossel gave a good example of this faith by saying that he would give anyone in the audience $100, on the spot, if they could identify a single thing that government does better than the free market. When someone stood up to claim the prize, pointing to the record of public health care in every developed country other than the United States, Stossel insisted that the health care market in the U.S. is not free because the government offers tax deductions for health care insurance. It’s the sort of debating school slipperiness that will relieve Stossel and company from ever standing seriously to account for their own faith-based positions.)

Secular Scientists, Skeptics et al: This is a group that, in the word of Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer, “follows to where the evidence leads.” As Randy Kirk noted in his blogged coverage of the conference, a defining feature in this crowd is “hubris,” the often erroneous presumption that we can gather enough evidence to reach useful and reliable conclusions. For example, the gardeners of Eden (now Iraq) knew that they could irrigate their lush breadbasket and create a great society. They didn’t know that over centuries, salt leeching would render the whole area into a sterile desert. (“Get thee from the garden.”)

This sort of historic scientific haplessness is what makes the Christians wary: you can only believe in irrigation until it destroys you, where you can always believe in God.

The scientists’ failure to fully understand the complexities of our universe also gives ammunition to the High Priests of Commerce. Against a background of scientific uncertainty (a background that can never be wholly removed), the priests don’t have to present a superior argument, they just mount a campaign of doubt and demand greater freedoms for their revered market mechanisms. And if the market seems ruthless, uncaring and incapable of dealing with externalities like polutants capable of destroying human life on earth, well, it’s just that we have not yet established quite enough freedom. And in any case, government intervention is always worse.

The DeSmogBlog exists to watch for PR trickery that muddies the climate change debate (and debating school slipperiness counts), but we are also convinced that the issue of climate is real and the danger imminent. (And if you weren’t convinced already, 12 hours in the hands of Michael Shermer’s “skeptics” would certainly sort you out.)

Where does that leave us? Well, the hubris of science is still a problem. Nearing the end of the day at the conference on Saturday, at a point where I was really beginning to despair at future facing my children, Dr. Gregory Benford stepped up with a potential climate change solution: you broadcast chaff into the upper atmostphere and deflect ultraviolent rays. (The link will take you to a quick, explanatory podcast.)

In a state of despair and exhaustion, I was delighted to think that there is a technical fix. My colleague Sarah Pullman was instantly more skeptical, pointing out that our ability to change the climate is what got us into this problem; maybe it would be smarter to stop, or at least curtail our negative activities, rather than start meddling even more aggressively.

She has a point worth debating, but I fear it is one that will only be resolved if the other parties drop the dogma and start taking this issue seriously. People like Jonathan Adler seem prepared to do so. And others, like Mike Shermer, are clearly capable of at least getting everyone into the same room.

In the end, maybe there is still room for optimism.

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