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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The modern Inquisition

From the always eloquent Rex Murphy, here is Science by intimidation from Saturday's Globe and Mail (a piece that is so well written that it must be read in it's entirety):

Truth may enter the world by many doors, but she is never escorted by force. I thought that was a lesson learned long ago, and learned by none more tellingly than scientists. Real scientists, actually, have learned it. A new amalgam has emerged however, the scientist-activist, and for that specimen it's a lesson passed by.

In the dawn of the Enlightenment, it was scientists who were hauled before tribunals and inquisitions. Galileo is the arch example, the pioneer empiricist who rejected the ancient Earth-centric model of the (then known) universe, and for his pains earned the attention and wrath of the distinctly unscientific Inquisition.

I am drawn to these thoughts, and to the long-decayed example of the Inquisition, by a most curious outburst this week by James Hansen, the principal voice of NASA on the subject of global warming, a man who played – as it were – John the Baptist to Al Gore's messianic teachings on the subject. Dr. Hansen is largely credited with “sounding the alarm” on man-made global warming, and he has been a persistent, high-profile and very aggressive proponent of the cause for over two decades now. Dr. Hansen doesn't take kindly to those who dispute his apocalyptic scenarios. I choose the term, apocalyptic, deliberately. According to Dr. Hansen, mankind may have reached the tipping point with global warming. Should that be the case, wide-scale calamity and catastrophe are inevitable. And should we not have reached the point of absolute crisis, should there be a minuscule interval for the human species to act and avert the very worst, according to Dr. Hansen, what yet remains to be faced is still horrible enough indeed.

Not all the world shares Dr. Hansen's vision of imminent ecological Armageddon. Serious minds, seriously disinterested in the subject, throw up caveats all the time. They question the models of climatological speculation; they question the peculiar mix of man-made and other likely sources of climate dynamics; they question some of the data gathering and some of its interpretation; and they question the very maturity of the highly complex, and experimentally deficient science of global warming itself.

They seriously question, too, the massive policy prescriptions that are being insisted upon as necessary in response to the scientific determinations of man-made global warming. There is lots of room for different, honest opinion on questions so large and complex, questions at the terribly complicated intersection of science, politics and economics.

But, to Dr. Hansen's agitated mind, those who raise such questions, who inject skepticism into the global warming debate, are “deniers.” The word here is becoming commonplace, but it remains a singular slur. A clutch of the global warming believers like to cast all who would argue with them into the polemical pit, the pit being that dissent from orthodox opinion on global warming as the equivalent of Holocaust denial. It is a shameless and vicious tactic, and hardly accords with the nobility that is suppose to drive the conscience of those out to save the planet. Dr. Hansen is overfond of the specious and chilling analogy: He has written of the “crashing glaciers serv(ing) as a Krystal Nacht” and, although he later repented of the metaphor, compared coal trains to “death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.” This week, Dr. Hansen went a step even more noxiously forward.

He called for a tribunal, or as I prefer to call it, an Inquisition, to put on trial for crimes against nature and humanity, the CEOs of the big oil companies who, according to Dr. Hansen's frantic view of things, feed the public “misinformation” about the climate crisis. Again the implicit model is to Nuremberg, as the man attempts to put concern for a future – let us call it a probability – on a moral and factual par with the unquestioned, historical, shattering enormity of the Nazi Holocaust.

Is this a scientist speaking? If so, it is more than curious that in the 21st century it is the scientist calling for the secular equivalent of an Inquisition. More to the point, are these the words of a man really certain of his truth, or one who – with the anxiety of the fanatic – is trying to shield it from all rigour of skepticism and inquiry? In either case, I do not question at all the assertion that it is the voice of a man who is neither a friend to reason or science. This is the voice of the scientist-activist consumed with his own virtue and fearful of all dispute.

Science has no need of tribunals or trials, no need of Nuremberg justice, or analogies with the Holocaust. James Hansen's words this week were an offence, an offence against inquiry, against science, against moral seriousness. They were a piece of insolence against the idea of debate itself.
Did Hansen just play what the Urban Dictionary calls The Hitler Card? - a common last ditch effort in a heated political debate to steer the argument back in one's favor by declaring your opponent's position to be that of Adolf Hitler.

Two points from the above:
  1. This debate is political and not about the science, and
  2. The alarmists' position has become so untenable and their predictions so at odds with the observed data, that they will take any means to stifle any form of real debate on the science. They may have reached the point of desperation where they feel it necessary to play the Hitler Card.
This may be a tipping point indeed, but not of the type described by Hansen. It may be a tipping point in the debate over anthropogenic global warming.

1 comment:

Halfwise said...

We can hope that this marks a tipping point, but I do not hold my breath.

Until influential voices in the media stop acting as amplifiers for fear-mongering activists, and begin to apply basic journalistic practices of fact checking, the current trend remains intact. Your previous post on the Northwest Passage provides ample evidence to support my skepticism.