Saturday, June 28, 2014

"I'm not a scientist" – Making sense of the latest rhetorical gambit in right-wing climate-change denialism

About a year ago I posted an item about charting the stages of right-wing climate-change denialism. That phenomenon continues to evolve. On May 30 Jonathan Chait wrote a nice piece analyzing the recent tendency for Republican politicians to say "I'm not a scientist" when the subject of climate change comes up. As Chait convincingly suggests,
“I am not a scientist” makes sense as a way to resolve a tension within Republican politics. It may be a political liability for Republicans to openly associate themselves with the kook conspiracy theories popular among conservative ideologues. One solution might be for Republicans to concede that anthropogenic global warming is indeed real, but that any solution is simply too costly. That might allow Republicans to minimize their kook exposure while still hewing to the bottom line party doctrine that individuals and firms ought to be able to dump carbon into the atmosphere for free.

The trouble with the it’s-real-but-let’s do-nothing line is that might give offense to the kooks themselves. After all, the Glenn Becks, George Wills, and Wall Street Journal editorial page columnists of the world are out there fighting the good denier fight, and they don’t want to be undercut by their fellow Republicans. [....]
As usual, Chait's piece is perceptive, illuminating, and a must-read, so I would advise everyone to just go read it. But it's worth quoting this shrewd observation on the significance of this rhetorical formula:
“I’m not a scientist” allows Republicans to avoid conceding the legitimacy of climate science while also avoiding the political downside of openly branding themselves as haters of science. The beauty of the line is that it implicitly concedes that scientists possess real expertise, while simultaneously allowing you to ignore that expertise altogether.
=>  There have been other accounts of this potentially interesting trend, accompanied by speculations about its possible significance. I notice that one useful roundup appeared today in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Here are some highlights:
The war on climate science has evolved rapidly over the past decade, with talking points surging and subsiding in wave after wave: The planet is not warming. The planet might be warming, but the scientific uncertainty is too great to be sure. The planet was warming, but the warming stopped. The planet is warming, but not because of anything that humans are doing. The planet is warming, but that could be a good thing. The planet is warming and not in a particularly good way, but there’s not much we can do about it. The planet is warming and possibly in a very bad way, maybe even because of human activities, but fixing it would be much too expensive.

Just when it seemed that climate deniers might finally be coming to their senses, several leading voices began backpedaling. But instead of asserting that global warming isn’t occurring or isn’t human-caused, they came up with a sly new way to suggest that the scientific jury is still out: total ignorance. As in ignore-ance.

The recent rash of ignorance started with a few Republican politicians who proclaimed that their lack of scientific training makes it impossible for them to determine whether scientists are telling the truth about global warming. By last week, Republicans in Congress were even ignoring experts from their own party: the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency under four Republican administrations, who testified that global warming is real, humans are causing it, and action is needed. Republican congressmen responded by trying to block funding for EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards. Of course they did. The only science that interests them is political science.
[JW: I know that last sentence was just intended to be witty and figurative, but the joke doesn't quite work, and it needs to be rewritten. Actually, the House Republicans have been trying to defund political science, too. They also voted to prohibit the US military from assessing possible national-security implications of climate change.]
Weasel words. “I’m not a scientist,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott on May 27, when asked whether human activities are significantly affecting the weather. Asked whether he is now less doubtful about the human influence on climate than he was in 2011, Scott simply repeated himself: “Well, I’m not a scientist.”

On May 29, House Speaker John Boehner spouted a slight variation on the theme: “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

“Neither he nor I are a climate scientist,” said Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn in a debate with television personality Bill Nye “The Science Guy” three months earlier. “He is an engineer and actor. I am a member of Congress.”

Koch Brothers spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia was on message, too, in a recent email to The Wichita Eagle: “We are not experts on climate change,” she wrote.

The “I’m not a scientist” mantra dates back to at least 2010, when Florida Senator Marco Rubio—who recently said he’s ready to be president—questioned the human contribution to climate change. “I’m not a scientist,” he told The Miami Herald. “I’m not qualified to make that decision... there’s a significant scientific dispute about that.” In a 2012 interview with GQ magazine, Rubio gave a similar answer when asked how old the Earth is: “I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute among theologians, and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.”

Gosh, who knew that Rubio is an economist, an historian, and a theologian? [....]

Has climate denial become cheesy? Most Republicans aren’t making a point of being non-scientists, especially after President Obama skewered the phrase in a commencement speech on June 14, offering his own translation of “I’m not a scientist”: “I accept that man-made climate change is real, but if I admit it, I'll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot.” Had climate deniers been around at the dawn of the space program, Obama said, they would have told John F. Kennedy that the moon “was made of cheese.”

We can’t get a taste of the moon, yet most of us trust science enough to believe that it’s not cheddar. With climate change, we can see for ourselves: coastal flooding, melting glaciers, extreme weather. Most Americans are not as clueless about what’s causing these changes as some of their elected representatives claim to be. A Gallup poll in mid-March reported that nearly six in 10 Americans believe that pollution from human activities, rather than natural causes, is responsible for the rise in global temperatures over the past century. Even among Republicans, 41 percent agree. And most of them aren’t scientists.
=> To reiterate something I've said before::
I know some serous and intelligent people who think it is unfair and even offensive to use the word "denialism" in this context, but I use it advisedly. Yes, I recognize that there are some thoughtful and reasonable forms of skepticism about climate change and its implications, whether or not one finds them convincing. But the perspective on climate change that now dominates the national Republican Party and the right-wing propaganda apparatus, running from talk radio and Fox News through right-wing think-tanks and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, goes way beyond that.
And this increasingly tendency toward strident, monolithic, intellectually irresponsible, and crudely demagogic climate-change denialism is just one manifestation of a more general pattern of across-the-board knee-jerk anti-environmentalism that has increasingly become a central defining feature of Republican orthodoxy in US national politics.

I'm not a climate scientist either, of course. But I do know that, despite some efforts to pretend otherwise, there is an overwhelming consensus on the basic issues among scientists with the relevant expertise, and it seems sensible to take that seriously. Even most of the small number of scientific skeptics whom climate-denialist propagandists like to cite, like Bjorn Lomborg, don't actually deny that global warming is happening, is significant, is potentially harmful, and is promoted by human activity. I'm also aware that, historically, the scientific consensus on all sorts of subjects has turned out to be wrong or misleading. So we shouldn't accept it blindly, if there are strong arguments against it or serious reasons to question it. But if climate-denialist writers have produced any genuinely convincing, or even plausible, arguments challenging the current scientific consensus on this subject, I haven't encountered them yet.

Sometimes the truth is unpleasant or ideologically inconvenient, but we still need to face it. (That applies, by the way, to self-styled "progressives," leftists, and "post-modernists" as well as to right-wingers.)

For other people who aren't climate scientists, I once again recommend 154 one-line rebuttals to climate-change denialists and a very clear and informative little book by Kerry Emanuel, What We Know About Climate Change.

—Jeff Weintraub