Philosophers are like buses. There’s never one when you want one, and then three come along at once. Thanks to Barry Woods for alerting me to this paper by Catriona McKinnon, Professor of Political Theory at Reading University, and to Ruth Dixon for pointing out this contribution to the Oxford University Press Climate Science Research Encyclopaedia by Michael Lamb.
Under the title “Should we Tolerate Climate Change Denial?” Professor McKinnon argues that there’s no justification for letting climate deniers express themselves, and she quotes John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to prove it. Indeed, following her logic, there’s no justification for not hanging climate deniers up by their goolies until they repent. It’s a complex argument, but it boils down to this: Mill gives three possible reasons for allowing our opponents a hearing, but only the second of his reasons can apply in the case of climate deniers, because it’s the only one which applies to opponents who make false statements, which is what climate deniers do. Professor McKinnon goes on:
For climate denial to fit Mill’s second model, it has to be the case that either it benefits scientists, or it benefits wider humanity (or both). Are any of these things true?
Contestation in science is what opens up new fields of scientific enquiry: contestation can falsify a conjecture, shift a paradigm, or make a research program degenerate [Yerwhat?]. Contestation is also a continuous process whereby refutations of conjectures are attempted, scientific paradigms are refined, or research programs are developed. Present climate denial does not fit these models of contestation: it is antiscientific. Climate deniers are not scientists with beliefs about climate change that differ from scientists in the mainstream: climate deniers are not scientists at all. Many of them are not trained in climate (or any) science, their methods are unscientific (cherry picking data or making fundamental errors such as confusing weather events with long-term climate trends), and they do not submit their writings to professional peer review. The antiscientific contestation of climate science offered by deniers is of no benefit to climate scientists themselves, and it is legitimate for them to be denied employment in and access to universities and research institutions, and to be ineligible for resources (such as funding for research) which society makes available to support real scientists in their work.
So sod you, Lomborg, Spencer, Lindzen & co. Mill’s second case doesn’t apply, so it’s basically off with your goolies.
Michael Lamb’s argument is more complex, since he is dealing with the correct ethical behaviour of scientists, not deniers. He outlines three theories of ethics (Consequencialism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotelian value ethics) and states that the one he prefers is the Aristotelian one, backed up by many many references to studies of Aristotle’s (and Thomas Aquinas’s) ethics by Professor Lamb et al.
He defends the multiple Aristotelean virtues of honesty, objectivity, etc., making it very clear that he is on the side of Truth, i.e. climate science, as understood by the people to whom his encyclopaedia article is addressed, to whit “scientists, policymakers, and environmental advocates.”
[But isn’t it rather odd that an encyclopaedia article should be addressed to a certain audience? Isn’t the whole point of an encyclopaedia that anyone can consult it, even people who are not policymakers or environmental advocates? I used to devour my granny’s encyclopaedia, which came cheap with her newspaper subscription. The editors didn’t feel the need to specify that it was addressed to Daily Mirror readers.]
Lamb argues for decent behaviour on the part of scientists, including not lying, not even a tiny bit. He doesn’t mention Professor Phil Jones, who lied about tree ring proxies using Mike’s Nature trick and was absolved of any wrongdoing by half a dozen official enquiries. Nor does he mention Dr Gleick, who lied in order to obtain confidential documents, and used them to fabricate a false document which was extensively quoted in the press long after it was known to be fraudulent. He argues against lying for a good cause, but he doesn’t mention the wholehearted support for Gleick’s lies provided by George Monbiot in the Guardian, or by Lamb’s fellow OUP Climate Science author Professor Lewandowsky.
Professor Lamb may be arguing for ethical standards which have ben systematically trashed by climate scientists and their supporters, but he’s basically on their side, as he makes it clear when he talks of “…the deceptive framing that climate change skeptics sometimes use to oppose mitigation or adaptation policies. (Reference: McCright ‘Dealing with climate change contrarians’)” and of “climate change’s potentially dangerous effects on the entire planet,” and “the massive consequences of climate change for the planet.” And when he states that “the consequences of climate change are potentially disastrous,” and that “climate change is currently ‘the world’s biggest collective action problem’ and involves so many different types of uncertainty” and that “climate communication must serve an ‘analytical’ or informational role that informs the public about climate change and a ‘motivational’ role that persuades the public to act.” For professor Lamb, climate policy is something to be imposed, but in a nice way. This is philosophy as exposition, not as enquiry. Lamb’s set text is Aristotle’s Rhetoric, not the Nichomachean Ethics. (He is an expert on the theology of St Thomas Aquinas.)
I do agree with Lamb though about the Aristotelian criterion being the best one, even though that’s the one I come out worst on. But philosophy is all about admitting when you’re wrong.
[Briefly: I’m ethically lousy on the consequencialism ethical measure, since my efforts are entirely inconsequential; I’m ok when judged by Kantian deontology, since I don’t mind when OUP authors Cook and Lewandowsky are as rude about me as I am about them (though I do mind when they lie to me, and to their scientific colleagues, and even to each other); but on the Aristotle / Thomas Aquinas scale my ethical score is abysmal, since I am wholly lacking in a number of key virtues, including patience, magnanimity, and a tolerance of idiots. See below.]
My third philosopher is Rupert Read; Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. His article at the Conversation splendidly combines support for the Precautionary Principle with an attack on Brexit.
To quote Read:
“..the precautionary principle points out that when full evidence is lacking we should err on the side of caution….In other words, rather than scientists having to prove that something is dangerous before it’s regulated or prohibited, those wishing to do the potentially dangerous thing should have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is safe before they are allowed to do it. Better safe than sorry.”
Or in other other words, don’t join the Common Market, because it might be dangerous, but once you’re in it, don’t leave, because you never know what might happen if you do. Don’t go outside, because it might rain, but if you do, take an umbrella. But don’t open it, because a spoke might bust and poke your eye out. Best to stay at home holding your unopened umbrella and read the Conversation.
Rupert Read begins his sermon with a reading from Calamities: Chapter 1, Verse 1:
The world is witnessing an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes, droughts, floods and famines. A significant part of this is attributable to the temperature rises and disruption to the weather systems that human industrial activity has triggered.
His reference for this information is: “Global Increase in Climate-Related Disasters”: principal author, Vinod Thomas, Director General at the Independent Evaluation Department, Asian Development Bank, Manila.
The Philippines Bank article cited has a number of useful graphs showing:
Figure 1: that the number of climatalogical disasters peaked in the year 2000 at about 60, falling in 2014 to about 20;
Figure 2: that the number of people affected by climatological disasters peaked in 2002 at about 130 million, falling in 2014 to about 30 million.
And there’s a wide range of experts cited, including Pielke, Stott, Stern, Nuccitelli and Cook. Take your pick.
I’m not criticising the article by Vinod Thomas of the Asian Development Bank and his colleague Ramón E.López, Professor of Economics at the University of Chile. But I am concerned about a philosopher at the University of East Anglia whose first article at a website financed by some of the world’s most prestigious universities opens with a sentence about climate change containing eight misencounters with the truth in the first seventeen words, referenced to a paper by a Filipino banker which states the exact opposite of what he is asserting.
After his opening salvo about hurricanes, droughts, floods and famines, he settles down to a criticism of Brexit for its failure to conform to the precautionary principle of not doing anything that might not be entirely safe:
At its heart, precaution represents a challenge to purely “evidence-based” risk-management practices. Instead, the precautionary principle points out that when full evidence is lacking we should err on the side of caution and regulate potential threats, if those could cause serious or irreversible damage. This is more important than ever as we create new synthetic products, including even synthetic life, and as we meddle, at our existential risk, with our climate.
The references here are to an article at the Guardian offshoot Business Green: “Evidence – or precaution? A new way of looking at the business and financial worlds” by Green Party candidate for Cambridge, Rupert Read; and to the evidence submitted to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on Genome Editing by Rupert Read, “philosopher of science, and environmental philosopher.”
The article ends with a call to UK citizens to alert their MPs to the need to abide to the Precautionary Principle, supported by this argument:
If we believe that risks should be borne by those who take them and not by the public, then we must defend and indeed extend the scope of the precautionary principle.
supported by a link to this article whose author Rupert Read argues that:
We need to be less fixated on the evidence, where the human world is concerned, and more determined to take up a precautionary stance. The stakes are high It would be wrong to gamble, in such a situation…
Well, if the stakes are high and it’s wrong to gamble, you take your chips off the table and shut up. But that’s not what Rupert does. He multiplies interventions, in the form of books, papers, blog articles and evidence to parliamentary committees. Rupert is willing to stake his reputation on the Precautionary Principle. And so am I. And my sense of precaution tells me that I wouldn’t trust Rupert if he was selling me a lifejacket for the last lifeboat out of Libya.
Because Precautionary Principles are like opinions: everybody has one. And my Precautionary Principle tells me that Rupert is like one of those unique bodily organs people are always talking about, but never mention.
Precautionary Principalists are obsessed with the stakes, but never mention the odds. Keynes, on the other hand, (whom Rupert admires) was keenly interested in the odds. When the Provost of his college burst into his rooms to announce that the zero was being suppressed on the roulette wheels at Monte Carlo (reducing the odds of losing from 25.5:25 to 1:1), they took the night train to Nice for a weekend of serious throwing of precaution to the winds. But Keynes had lived through the Great War, and knew a thing or two about risk (even if at second hand.)
To return to the wholly imaginary “ increase in the number and severity of hurricanes, droughts, floods and famines” with which Rupert begins his article: they don’t exist. They are mythical. They don’t even exist in the source he quotes for their existence. But, as Rupert tells us, he is not that bothered about evidence. He thinks that relying on evidence is “…a hubristic stance. Hubris, in the long run, inevitably leads to nemesis.”
His authority for that statement is mythical too: the Greek tragic poets (via Aristotle.) Who also teach us that Nemesis frequently comes in the form of evil-smelling winged Furies who will swoop down on you and tear you apart with their razor-sharp claws if you defy the Gods. It may not sound very likely, but the stakes are high. So if you’re the hubristic sort and given to telling porkies (and who isn’t?) and you believe in the Precautionary Principle, you should certainly take your airgun with you next time you go shopping. And an Airwick.