by David Wemyss (August 2012)
In the UK, people like me – arty, bookish, classical music buff, interested in philosophy – are supposed to be on the left. We form the basis of our cultural elites. We work in government or education or health. Maybe even the BBC. We read The Independent or The Guardian. We’re pro-European multiculturalists, tolerant and egalitarian. We hate the idea of going back to academic selection in our schools. The NHS must be a public sector monolith at all costs. Working in the public sector is like being the Good Samaritan. And of course we’re environmentalists. The ultimate egalitarian ethic is intergenerational.
In November 2009, over more than a thousand private e-mails and other documents were stolen or leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The correspondence involved some of the world's leading climate scientists. They were manipulating evidence, expressing frustration that what they “knew to be true” wasn’t being borne out by their research, and mumping about peer-reviewed journals allowing a platform for dissenting academics. They were even fantasizing about beating up opponents. The shameful episode proved not that climate change wasn’t true but that climate change scientists are human beings and – like the rest of us – can’t really be trusted.
On 24 January 2011, the well-known BBC television programme Horizon featured Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel-winning geneticist and president of the Royal Society. Sir Paul set out to understand and address the public's increasing lack of faith in science. He came over as a pleasant and reasonable sort of man.
One part of the programme has since become very familiar. It is available online, and brought much pleasure to the green fraternity because, half way through it, a famously disputatious British climate change sceptic – James Delingpole of The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph – suffered a harrowing moment for a public intellectual. He was publicly humiliated.
In a moment reminiscent of the public defeat of C S Lewis by Wittgenstein’s pupil Elizabeth Anscombe at the Socratic Club in Oxford in 1948, Mr Delingpole froze on screen, seeming for all the world to have been completely crushed by Sir Paul’s use of this simple analogy: if you were diagnosed with cancer, you would accept the consensually-led recommendations of senior doctors, so why wouldn’t you accept the consensually-led view of the scientific community that climate change is real and catastrophic?
He did seem to sense that the analogy had been a poor one, but he was completely unable to compose himself and say why. Even worse, a story then circulated, not without a degree of conviction, that he had complained later that he had been intellectually raped. He subsequently said that he doubted that he would have said such a thing, but it’s not really the sort of remark you would forget making – although it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what the expression might actually mean. Nevertheless, it was a significant embarrassment. But it could have happened to anyone – although we’re all a bit two-faced here, making the solecisms of our opponents momentous while wishing our own to be kept in perspective.
The truth is that solecisms are not momentous, although little defeats in conversational jousting ache and tug for surprisingly long periods. So Mr Delingpole certainly had my sympathy. But he’s not really my cup of tea. He’s a bit bumptious, and he topples over into sarcasm far too easily, so, as you can imagine, his mishap was richly satisfying to his many critics. He’s no Theodore Dalrymple, of whom one is almost tempted to say that it could not have happened. But he’s a witty middlebrow lampooner of the left, and I think I could spend an evening in the pub with him.
And Sir Paul’s analogy was poor. But when The Guardian previewed the television programme, there were hundreds of comments left online, most of them relishing what their authors clearly supposed had been the humiliation of a wicked man by a good one, and celebrating the analogy as an example of how a genuine intellectual can quickly destroy a pretender. But two or three responses – I only read the first seventy – fastened onto the fact that Mr Delingpole had actually missed an open goal. He just couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet.
Sitting with a beer, and with the benefit of a few seconds of unflustered thought, I formulated a variation on the analogy that had left Mr Delingpole stumped. The next morning, I put it to my son. What would he do, at the age of 21, if a doctor were to say to him that new research suggested strongly that he would develop a particular form of cancer in forty years time, when he was 61, and that he should enter hospital as soon as possible for a major operation to avert his fate?
Unsurprisingly, my son thought it highly unlikely that he would go along with such a proposal.
And I’d say that that’s a more telling analogy.
A side issue would be to ask how many people would ever be autonomous enough to say no to cancer treatment, and to insist that they just wanted to give up. After all, medical staff would disapprove strongly, and the moral miasma would be very awkward for a patient to cope with. There’s something to ponder there too.
But the main point is quite simple. It looks as if a lot of people don’t care all that much about environmental alarms. Just as they know they have to die, and don’t intend to get themselves cryogenically frozen in the hope of being resurrected centuries later, they also know the planet has to die too, and don’t intend to flail about to resist that either.
A lot of environmentalists will find that horrifying, even nihilistic, but I think they’re missing something. We bemoan political ideologies and religious fanaticisms but we usually have a sneaking preference for one side or the other: left or right, secular or religious, Catholic or Protestant, Israeli or Palestinian. The seeds of ideology and fanaticism are in most of us – except perhaps they’re not there in nihilists and quietists!
Of course nihilists deny value, so you might think that they throw the baby out with the bathwater. No ideology or fanaticism, but nothing else either. The quietist position is more congenial, though. It’s more inclined towards the view that value is in the world, but that it doesn’t show its workings in the explanations the world is impelled to attribute to it.
So I don’t really warm to the instrumental mindset that’s simply horrified by people who don’t seem to care much about saving the planet. The real point is that, minus that mindset – with a good dose of Heidegger, perhaps – environmentalism could be less sanctimonious, and more conversationally hospitable.
And maybe that’s what’s wrong with the green world-view. It’s conversationally inhospitable.
One thing’s for sure: a lot of people in these debates are temperamentally disposed to annoy each other, like cats and dogs. And that is interesting.
But the question still remains: is climate change true? The expert consensus isn’t absolute, but there’s a compellingly large majority view. Mr Delingpole says that science has never depended on consensus, but that’s a bit like saying that music is only made up of Beethovens, iconoclasts always breaking the mould.
Always breaking the mould of, well, consensus.
But sceptics still think that the consensus-talk points to scientistic politics and politicised science.
I think that charge is barely plausible, but thirty years in local government in the UK left me in no doubt that, for a variety of reasons, people in the public sector deceive themselves about the worth of what they are doing, and so, in theory, there could be comparable self-deceit about green issues in the scientific community. But I think it would be altogether likelier that it existed as a sub-plot, not as the main narrative.
And there’s more than one kind of scepticism. As well as out-and-out climate change deniers, and those who deny that humans are the main cause of the problem, there are also academically reputable greens like Bjorn Lomborg who are sceptical about contemporary articles of faith – the anti-car mentality, aversion to air travel, long-life light bulbs, carbon footprints, and so on – and think we should give up on all of that as mere piety and start planning for absolutely inevitable global catastrophes in about 150 years time.
Mind you, I didn’t mean to mention any dissident greens by name, because his or her opponents then jump on you to tell you why your hero has feet of clay, or is funded secretly by the nuclear power industry. So let me be clear: all my heroes are literary or philosophical or musical.
And then there are greens who believe particular policies to be incoherent. Quite a few of them now seem to think that wind farms are a waste of time, and that they scar landscapes and seascapes (I actually think wind farms are very beautiful) for the sake of policies that have been distorted by financial chicanery, and by the desire of governments to create jobs.
That last bit is interesting. There are certainly a lot of jobs out there that aren’t really necessary, but they’re often made necessary by unnecessary legal frameworks and politicised public policies. For example (as I know from all that time in local government) you need a probative deed – and an extremely complicated set of public processes – to validate a yellow line on a British road.
This creates hundreds of jobs (directly) and contributes (in part) to the need for thousands more. The tiny public gain could be obtained in much simpler ways, but the complex ways create employment – and the soothing language of “strengthening local democracy” soon hypnotises people into accepting that this is desirable.
Until someone snaps his fingers and they’re suddenly awakened by coming into contact with what the words actually mean.
Now remember that that’s just to do with yellow lines and parking schemes. You have to imagine this kind of thing all over the public sector. Then the private sector joins in as a supply industry – like the so-called “renewables industry”.
Of course, many people would say I was describing good economics here, not bad. I won’t go into that. The point is that, looking at public policy in the present age, it can be very difficult for ordinary people to get to the bottom of what they’re actually looking at. Indeed, this is an increasingly common complaint on the part of politicians.
Is climate change science a public scandal? I doubt it. It would surprise me if the majority view turned out to be anything other than largely correct, although I must say that I’m drawn to the sheer elegance of the idea of ditching pieties and getting ready for global disaster – especially if it were to turn out to be the best guess out there.
I’m reminded of the Cambridge spy, Sir Anthony Blunt, who said before he died that communism had been a kind of aesthetic choice, not a moral one at all.
I think I know what he meant.
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