"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, January 15, 2010


Lucia Liljegren gets to be my next "gate".

She's been missing my point about the two devils, summarizes my position as "The Other Side is THE DEVIL!" and has come up with the following clever bit of repartee.

Why is the other side of the debates I’m on always so hypocritical? They always jump on what my side says, and yet they willfully ignore all the faults on their own side. Let’s be honest about the double standard: The other side gets away with stuff that my side would never get away with. It’s just like the other side to be so deceitful: They’re always looking to score any advantage they can. People like that drive me crazy, and it seems like most of the people on the other side are just like that.

(Source: The Internet)

Real Source: Orin Kerr

Get it? This side? That side? It applies to all sides!

Well, if you follow the link you see the serious answer to this snark, which is "it depends"

Ken Arromdee says:

I’m going to defy Internet convention and respond to this in complete seriousness.

Remember back in the Cold War era, when the left liked to use moral equivalence between the US and the Soviets? For that matter, there are certain areas of politics now where they still do the same thing. And there are right-wing groups that do it too.

Sometimes both sides say the other side is acting unfairly, and one of them is right and the other isn’t. The solution is not some sort of moral equivalence which says “well, both sides rag on the other. I bet they’re both just biased.” The solution is to figure out which one. It may be hard, but nobody ever said politics is easy.

Creationists say scientists are lying or deluded. Scientists say the same about creationists. But the truth isn’t symmetrical–both sides say similar-sounding things about the other side, but they’re not equally right. The creationists, and only the creationists, are being deceitful and spouting nonsense–and you’d do scientists a great disservice by saying “oh, it’s just both sides using the same rhetoric about each other” when similar words don’t imply similar levels of truth.

And of course creation is just a particularly obvious example. It happens plenty of times in politics. It may be harder to tell which side is right than it is with the creationists, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a right side and a wrong side, no matter how similar the two sides seem to sound.

Indeed, the non-sensible side usually makes some effort at sounding sensible (though apparently in the Palin era this is less necessary), precisely to make the choice more difficult.

Let me say again, I think the number of ill-intentioned people among the opposition is probably quite small, and presuming ill intent on the part of any specific opponent is a bad idea.

On the other hand, to look at the situation, and see how many accusations are flying about, suffices to prove that there are bad guys at work, though it doesn't suffice to prove which side they prefer and to what degree of unanimity. When accusations of gross malfeasance exist, either the accuser or the accused or perhaps both pretty much have to be in the wrong, i.e., unethical. Judgment must be applied to find out which is which, but the presence of a malign influence is already pretty much guaranteed.

I think, though, that Lucia has missed the point quite thoroughly.

The point isn't that there are some actual bad guys among the various fools and egotists who plague us, though I have no doubt that there are some. The point is that scientific opposition and legal/political opposition are based on very different views of ethical behavior. When a scientific mind encounters a scientific mind on the opposite side of a question, if all is going well the exchange of ideas can be beneficial for both parties, because whatever opposing goals the parties may have are (at least ideally) subordinate to their shared goal of discovering the truth. This ideal may usually be honored in the breach, of course, but both scientists operate in a larger context where discovery of the truth (at least ideally) is the institutional goal of all participants.

That these ideals are under stress is not something I would contest, but let's agree at least that this is the ideal. Wiener refers to nature as the opponent of the honest scientist as a "devil" in the Augustinean sense; an evil of incompleteness, not of competitive agency.

In legal and political circumstances, the opposition really is not just seeking the triumph of their ideas, they are seeking the triumph of their ideas irrespective of truth. That is, winning the battle is what counts; the actual validity of their position is secondary and the prospect of shifting sides under the weight of evidence is nil.

This sort of opposition is a Manichean "devil" in Wiener's taxonomy. It does not even have to be malign, really. It just has to be implacably in opposition regardless of evidence.

The trouble arises when the Manichean worldview addresses matters that are ordinarily discussed on Augustinean turf. Many of the Manichean techniques are of absolutely no use to the Augustinean scientist, who is thus ill-versed in them. In short, implacable opposition breaks science.

Debating techniques are brought into territory where they are inappropriate, and confusion reigns. This confusion is quite perfectly captured in an analogy by the contest between the Augustinean scientist #1 and the Manichean pseudoscientist #2, in the presence of a journalist and something that we shall, for purposes of argument, take to be a duck.

Responding to the superficial aspects of the argument ("heh-heh-heh - he said 'devil' heh-heh") is Manichean itself, and I seem to get shallowly misinterpreted every time I try to refer to ethics around these parts. So listen carefully, low-sensitivity types (and by that I may or may not refer to the insensitivity of your belief structures) I do not say you specifically are evil. I say the configuration of the debate is the consequence of the injection of an inappropriate ethical context. If we approach matters collaboratively we may yet get somewhere, but if we approach matters with merely a veneer of politesse and actually act like opposing litigants in a courtroom, we're abandoning the principles that make science work.

Update: Please remember, as Deech56 points out in the comments, that in the courtroom of science-related fact, Nature is the judge, and I don't mean the journal.

PS, more tree lobsters h/t Hank Roberts


Deech56 said...

Michael, I think this comment from Lucia's thread kind of sums up your point:

Harrywr2 (Comment#29876) January 12th, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Unfortunately for him, ‘his side’ is going to lose the broader political debate.

All political debate is functionally an insurgency. The only way to win an insurgency is through disaggregation.

In practical terms this means changing ones definition of ’side’ to be more inclusive of the other side and addressing the ‘fence sitters’ in a positive manner.

A ‘war of ideas’ isn’t one or lost in the end zone, it’s won or lost on the 50 yard line.

There's only one vote that counts, and it is nature's. I see this poster focusing on who's making the "winning" argument and while the real question is what happens when atmospheric CO2 levels double.

The "winner" isn't who has the better argument or who is nicest, but who comes closest to the reality. (Robert Grumbine had a good post about successive approximations and engaging in discussions/debate)

The equivalence angle is also interesting - that it's the Rush Linbaughs and Michael Moores who are causing trouble (They're both wrong); if you denounce one, you must denounce the other. Thus the push for realists to disown Al Gore and Joe Romm if we criticize Marc Morano and Pat Michaels.

Michael Tobis said...

Deech, excellent example. I can find myself getting so sucked into their idea of the "game" that I read such things without blinking. That comment really separates the Manichean from the Augustinean science.

It's not so much the question of who is good or bad. It's the question of what we are trying to achieve.

Deech56 said...

Thank you, Michael. I think that this points out the gulf between scientists and non-scientists, and it's hard to convey the points you were making - "OMG, he called us devils."

If I can add to this a bit, on my home turf the gotcha moment came when years ago I mentioned that science is not logical, meaning that it was not argument driven, but data driven. In a black-and-white world, my statement is probably false, but in a nuanced view I believe I am right.

Of course, one conservative opponent who prides himself on his superior arguing skills frequently recalls my earlier statement:

Him: Hence why i dont take your views on this subject seriously. Remember: You said science isnt logical a while back as a way to just ignore the points I made. If its not in your mind, there is nothing to discuss.

I think GW needs a different advocate.

Me: I guess that you missed the point about science being data driven. Or about looking up stuff yourself in the scientific literature to see whether my points were scientifically sound. When you bring up scheisse like that Michael Crichton lecture (nicely spun, logical, but devoid of science) while blowing off the scientific literature I have to wonder whether you really care about finding the truth. Hint: science has a way of uncovering truths in the natural world, and it's not through cleverly crafted arguments, but by using the scientific method and including all observations, not just the observations that one likes. Scientists are not lawyers.

Padraig Tomas said...

The aspect of this debate, which I find tremendously frustrating, and which is easily seen outside the scientific community is the refusal by some to even consider what the other side is thinking.

I had a conversation with a fellow on the internet where he made the assertion that because of the 800 year lag between change in temperature and change in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels during the past glacial and interglacial periods the debate on AGW was over and that he was uninterested in wasting his time looking into what the oposition had to say on the subject. This would of course also include people like Nicolas Caillon and his colleagues. The refusal to consider the opinion of the people who helped create the data set which he was referencing, by reading their paper, is to me awe inspiring.

The use of the email brouhaha is an instance of the same sort of thing. It is a refusal to listen to the opposition.

Michael Tobis said...

Patrick, yes, that is an excellent example of science-as-conflict as opposed to science-as-collaboration, or in Wiener's terms, Manichean vs Augustinean ethics.

Your correspondent had found a way to win points, and that was enough. To consider the context, to consider the arguments as to how much weeght these points should or shouldn't carry, to even complete the argument from "acknowledged lag" to "no policy problem", would make sense in a collaborative disagreement but not in a hostile disagreement.

When you encounter opposition like that, you need to decide one thing and one thing only - whether your efforts in the conversation are useful in convincing other people who might happen to read or listen, or whether your efforts are better spent elsewhere. This is exactly the calculation your opponent is making.

Sometimes you opponent will stop the conversation abruptly, usually finding some excuse to find you rude or arrogant. An accusation of rudeness or arrogance usually means you are winning the debate, so the opponent is about to get in one last dig before firing up their Huff and leaving in it. (Note: be very careful about gloating at this point. The reader wants you to say, no, I really wanted to discuss this point, nothing personal...)

On the other hand, if the other fellow sticks around, he is likely to think himself scoring points, so you may wish to change your strategy. You could ask around for reinforcements, or you could back down on some poor choice of phrase you had made earlier, or you could quietly turn your attentions elsewhere.

If there is actual research you could do to get more up to speed on the subject, that is a good approach because it uses the argument as emotional fuel for the hard work of gaining understanding of the earth system.

But make no mistake, in a case like this your opponent is not adding anything to the conversation in any scientific sense. You will never learn anything useful from them, and you will never get any concession from them. They almost certainly have a very confused idea of what science is, and if anybody ever enlightens them, it will not be somebody they have decided to "argue" with (by which they mean "screech at").

Hank Roberts said...


David B. Benson said...

Uh, obsters are sorta green.

Until you boil them.

Then the carcasses are red.

Just in case you never had a lobseter dinner.

Ones in Nova Scotia are the best.

Marion Delgado said...

What's opened my eyes to how ... well, nuts the denialists are, kind of en masse, is how they characterize people like Michael Tobis and Wm. Connelly, even, as wild-eyed extremists. I don't know of many AGW accepters who haven't had at least occasional words with Stoat on lowballing. And Michael has really often urged people to tone down what they're saying.

Of course, that's probably naivete on my part. It's not "nuts" so much as a collective culture of "here's your demonization list, and here's how, and now march out in lockstep and do it."

I better stop now before I start making some moral equivalences.

Marion Delgado said...


They're not saying anything new. We already knew they were going to fight science by buying media time and spreading lying propaganda to short-circuit any public, democratic response to AGW.

Actually, even creationism is not idealistic at all. You push things like creationism to get "chips" with a certain set of voters. Then you cash them in to get what you really want, which is economic royalism (FDR's term) as usual.

Michael Tobis said...

David, "it's complicated". See the Q&A at the bottom of the linked page.

David B. Benson said...

Aha, those are tree lobsters!

Of course, then.

Deech56 said...

David Benson - had my honeymoon in Nova Scotia and had lobster almost every day: lobster salad, lobster roll, whole lobster. Yum.

Marion Delgado - there are certainly those who stand to gain if nothing is done, but there are a lot of people carrying the torch of denial for free. Many are conservatives, but there are those like Cockburn and maybe Fuller who trot out their left-wing street cred. Do they have repression of their nuance-understanding gene?

I think of former left-wing radicals who became neoconservatives as maybe the closest equivalent, but maybe that's the muse of Pilsner Urquell speaking.

And it's a nice time to think back to FDR.

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."

Anonymous said...

Apropos your post above on Auden which has no 'comments' available, did he write that before or after he skedaddled out of Britain to avoid the bombs and hide in the capitalist castel of the world - America?

You will, I trust, understand and forgive a certain amount of bile and bitterness in my tone.

Michael Tobis said...

An awfully nationalistic comment on a poem extolling the benefits of abandoning nationalism, I'd say.


I don't know much about Auden, but given how y'all treated Alan Turing, a genuine hero in the same war, it's hardly surprising that the likes of Auden wanted out.

Pangolin said...

That is a lot of arguing to get two simple concepts down.

1) Climate change denialism is founded in lies and you can't honestly debate a liar.

2) Nobody has to believe in natural phenomena if they are real. Climate change, like gravity, believes in you whether you believe in it or not. Disbelief can be dangerous to the user.

Of course, having a precise breakdown of why such things are true on backup is always useful. Thank you.

Knowledge is Power said...

Let me explain why I believe it is childish (or even insane) to frame climate change as a simply choice between jobs and the environment.

Psychology tells us that there are two groups that use ‘splitting’.

The first group is very young children: ‘splitting’ is seen during an early developmental stage, it is the overly-simplistic thinking where people (or things) are seen as either all ‘good’ or all ‘bad’.

The second, splitting is used as a defence mechanism by those with borderline personality disorder (who are unable to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others) or those with narcissistic personality disorder (who also use splitting as a central defense mechanism in order to preserve their self-esteem).

Splitting seems to be present in thinking that jobs are ‘good’ and worth protecting and therefore protecting the environment must be ‘bad’ because it will cost jobs. So that leaves us with the ugly choice that certain politicians are ‘splitting’ because they can only see the issue in overly-simplistic terms (like a baby does) or that they have borderline/narcissistic personality disorder or another option is that they could be manipulating the public to protect business-as-usual interests. Hmmm, not a great selection to choose from!

I think most people are capable of thinking in much more complex ways than simply either/or type framings on climate change. If people must reduce climate change into simplistic dualistic terms (and I don’t think this is wise), then it would be preferable to think in terms of ‘green jobs’ versus ‘dirty’ jobs (or even ‘green infrastructure’ versus ‘dirty’ infrastructure). Still, the coal industry probably wouldn’t be happy with that framing.

I feel we must move away from this ‘splitting’ on environmental issues and instead need to look at things in a more adult way! This is where the idea of sustainable development comes in - it allows economic development as long as it is within the limits of the environment. If our economic progress is unsustainable then the environment will pay but progress that is sustainable is what is needed (e.g. more renewable energy). The keeping of voters (who must be at least 18 years of age) in a child-like state of thinking on climate change is ridiculous and must be designed to stop people thinking outside traditional ideas. Even the Yin/Yang teaches us that there is some white within the black and vice versa (it would pay politicians and often the media to remember this). We must think in much more holistic (multidisciplinary) terms if we are to negotiate this major social problem.

So next time someone says "it will cost jobs" - just ask yourself "are they in an early developmental stage (e.g. wearing nappies) or are they using it as a defence mechanism to protect their ideas???

Random Man

p.s. I love the tree lobsters.