Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creationism and climate change denial

I’ve noticed this more and more: people lumping “climate change denial” and “evolution denial” (creationism) into the same category. The argument is that both of these are the result of the same religious conservative “anti-science” movement. In a very narrow sense, this is true; creationists generally do not seem to believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW), for the same bogus reasons they don’t believe in evolution. But the reverse is not true: many (most I would say) AGW skeptics are not creationists. Lumping these two things together allows the environmentalists to dismiss any criticism of the established climate change narrative as the ravings of anti-scientific religious nuts. But there are some very significant scientific and economic arguments around climate change that are most definitely not in the same class as creationist arguments. Time for some de-lumping.

One major difference between climate change and evolution is how the evidence is understood and presented. It is now a familiar experience to see someone on TV telling us we need to immediately reduce emissions to avoid climatic catastrophe. In the rare event that such a person is asked to provide evidence of a human cause, the most common answer I’ve observed is along the lines of “ice caps and glaciers are melting, and the scientific consensus is that human CO₂ emissions are to blame.” Now, when was the last time you heard someone asked for evidence supporting evolution to respond with “life forms adapt to their environment and the scientific consensus is that Darwinian evolution is the cause.” This is not a small point. The fact that “consensus” is so regularly rolled out to support AGW, but is never used to support evolution shows that the levels of scientific understanding and debate are completely different.

No one talks about the “scientific consensus” for evolution because there’s no need to: evolution has a mountain of cold hard facts on its side, all confirmed by independent observation countless times. Climate research is very tough by comparison: our observational capabilities generally aren’t good enough to falsify competing theories. Instead, we have the IPCC saying that since we can’t establish the facts by direct observation, we’ll establish them by consensus. You can’t take the IPCC publications, repeat the experiments and confirm their results, because at the end of the day it’s just opinion.

My point here is not to show that the IPCC is wrong, but simply to show that the scientific process that it follows is fundamentally and necessarily different to that of evolutionary biology, or any other hard science for that matter. Questioning the consensus-derived “facts” of climate research is not the same thing as questioning the empirically verified facts of evolution.

Another difference I think is worth pointing out is how politics is so commonly mixed with climate science, in contrast to evolution science. Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: well credentialed scientist goes on TV and says “my research shows that climate change is likely to significantly damage coral reefs…” and barely pausing for breath continues “so it’s clear we must act to cut CO₂ emissions.” This casual connection of minor scientific research to sweeping reorganization of the world’s energy production is now so common place that people don’t find it remarkable. And if you accept the climate change problem but doubt the solution you’ll likely still receive the “denier” pejorative. Evolutionary biology simply isn’t political in this way.

Skepticism regarding climate change is not comparable to the denial of the established facts of evolution. Climate research has a long, long way to go before it achieves the level of confidence we have in evolution. It is very wrong to think that all opposition to the climate change narrative is driven by Biblical literalism.

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Thursday, December 09, 2010


Attack and Counter-Attack

I must confess, no story in recent months has captured my attention like the still-developing WikiLeaks saga. The ongoing dump of diplomatic cables combined with Julian Assange being charged with some sort of sex crime in Sweden means this is going to be in our face for a while yet.

The response to WikiLeaks has been loud, angry, hyperbolic attacks from “tough on terror” types in the U.S., and a corresponding thoughtless, reflexive defence from many “progressive” types. Amongst the noise are a few precious thoughtful critiques.

Clearly, WikiLeaks is not engaged in terrorism, and Julian Assange is not remotely comparable to the most junior jihadist. Sarah Palin’s pronouncements on the subject are pure demagoguery (by now I think we can fairly declare that an axiom with regard to any statement she makes). And Senator Lieberman needs to seriously deflate his sense of his own importance, and recognise that maintaining the government’s operational security isn’t actually in his job description.

I believe all these clumsy attacks against WikiLeaks will fail in the end, and they deserve to fail. In fact, I think they are completely counter-productive: sympathy for WikiLeaks is growing as people become concerned about the government trying to restrict speech.

The defenders of WikiLeaks are themselves hugely overreacting, however. The “attacks” against WikiLeaks and Mr Assange so far consist of: a few random nuts-with-a-mike threatening violence, some companies cutting off service, and a number of people expressing the opinion that U.S. law has been broken. Taken together, all this doesn’t come close to being a serious attempt to censor WikiLeaks. In the event that Mr Assange is charged by the DOJ, which is unlikely in my opinion, he’ll have his day in court. In the even more unlikely event that he’s actually convicted of espionage, then it should be the law you’re complaining about rather than the enforcement of it. And as Christopher Hitchens points out, those who choose to engage in civil disobedience must be prepared to face the consequences.

(The reason I say charges are unlikely is that I can’t see how the DOJ could credibly prosecute Mr Assange without also prosecuting the editor of the New York Times, which would be sure to end in disaster. But, who knows?)

At a time when publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed means you run the very real risk of being murdered, I can read people earnestly telling me that Amazon and Paypal cutting off WikiLeaks represents the greatest free-speech fight of our generation. Perspective is sorely lacking here.


Overall, I’m far more concerned about the way WikiLeaks is being lauded and defended than the way it’s being attacked. I’ve seen a call for Julian Assange to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and another for him to be named Australian of the Year. This is madness.

The word most often used by WikiLeaks fans is transparency. More transparency is good, and WikiLeaks provides more transparency, therefore WikiLeaks is good. Mr Assange certainly understands his fan base very well, as this is the line he takes in his deceitful, self-serving piece in The Australian. Well, I need to make a few points about transparency.

First, transparency is a means, not an end in itself. The ends are, essentially, ensuring that government office holders are acting within the law and in accordance with the will of the people. Of course, this is both a good and necessary thing. In principle, I’m all in favour of leaking government secrets when there’s a clear public interest in doing so. This has served us well in the past, and will do so again in the future.

But it must be recognised that transparency may also lead to negative ends. This is why responsible journalists weigh, as best they can, the public interest against the potential downsides before publishing leaked information. This article provides a good description of the negative ends that may result from the “transparency” that WikiLeaks has forced on us.

Now we must delve into the theories and ideology of Julian Assange. He has explained these in detail, but I shall do my best to summarise them fairly here. What the defenders of WikiLeaks don’t seem to have realised is that Mr Assange actually has no interest in improving transparency, or holding governments to account. His goal is essentially to conduct information warfare against what he views as “conspiratorial authoritarian regimes”. This is why, in sharp contrast to all the talk of transparency, WikiLeaks does everything it can to conceal its own activities. It’s an organisation built for conducting information warfare.

So, the objective of indiscriminately releasing all the diplomatic cables was not to inform the public, the objective was to impede the ability of the “regimes” to conduct diplomacy in the future. This is a goal that may very well have been achieved. Julian Assange is not trying to improve the system, he’s trying to smash it. In a nutshell, he’s an anarchist using information as his weapon. And after he has smashed every institution of liberal democracy, what then? Like any good anarchist, he has nothing more to say.

The fact that so many of the leaks have been “against” the U.S. government leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Mr Assange considers that government to be a “conspiratorial authoritarian regime”. Judging by his rhetoric, I strongly suspect he views all governments that way. Now we come to the really critical point: if Julian Assange is right about this, then his actions make perfect sense and should be supported. It should be no surprise by now that I think he is completely wrong.

It is necessary to follow the implications of accepting Mr Assange’s thesis. He is claiming that our governments that are ostensibly democratic systems working for the people, are in fact authoritarian regimes that are actively conspiring against the people. Your nation’s constitution is a lie. Our traditions of liberal democracy are actually myths. Debate is pointless. Your vote, irrelevant. Breaking the machine with information warfare is the only way to truly affect change.

Now if I try to muster every last reserve of cynicism and despair at my disposal, I cannot bring myself close to believing such a thing. Am I a naive, dewy-eyed, babe in the woods?

Returning the subject of transparency, I would argue that in historical terms we’re actually doing reasonably well on the transparency front these days. Let us consider some of the government activities that the WikiLeaks cheerleaders are generally most concerned about: detention without trial, “enhanced interrogation”, handing prisoners over to foreign authorities known to practice torture, extraordinary rendition, support for the Karzai regime/racket, I could go on. Many of these issues concern me too. But we knew about these policies before the valiant Mr Assange rode onto the scene. The leaks have, at most, underscored a few things. These policies are no more likely to be changed after the leaks than they were before.

Opponents of these harsh policies need to face up to a conclusion that appears most unwelcome to them: conspiracy and lack of transparency are not what keeps the policies alive. The real reason they persist is much more prosaic: the electorate, broadly speaking, is ok with them. What’s called for is less vandalism and more old-fashioned criticism. Make your arguments and try to convince your fellow citizens. Don’t be afraid to be boring about it (I certainly have no such fear – ha!). Or forget all that and go with cynical ranting about a public stupefied by mass media and consumerism. Either way.

In conclusion, I do not want to see WikiLeaks silenced or Julian Assange in jail for espionage (I’m not going to comment on the Swedish charges, thus far they seem completely tangential). However, those of us who believe that liberal democracy has some life in it yet need to criticise the undemocratic and destructive ideology that drives WikiLeaks. This is a secretive, unelected, unaccountable group that releases whatever information it can get its hands on. It indiscriminately and purposefully harms the ability of our government office holders to do the work we elected them to do. Our oft-derided citizenry at least have the pragmatic sense to recognise that those to whom we have delegated power can better achieve our common good when some secrecy is maintained. Julian Assange should respect that democratically determined outcome, and give up this reckless test of his pet conspiracy theories.

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