Bambi vs Godzilla

“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …

“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”

David Mamet in “Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood”, Harper’s, June 2005.

Why are We Moving Backwards?

Another take on it is here: “Why the right goes nuclear on global warming” by Jonathan Chait in the L A Times. I suppose that I should acknowledge that this article is what kicked off the thinking behind this blog.

I don’t always understand what point Roger Pielke is trying to make, but his
response to Chait’s article
is certainly coherent and interesting. I even agree with most of it, though I find it hard to figure where he gets his optimistic spin at the end.

Chris Mooney and Tim Lambert kick this cat around a bit without much effect, too. I find the most interesting thing about each of these blogs to be in the comments. See a refreshingly honest posting in Lambert’s log from “RightWinger” and a terrifyingly ignorant one in Mooney’s from “strangetruth”.

About the "consensus" thing

Very interesting article here making some of the same points I just made.

However, I think it misunderstands the nature of the discomfort with the idea of “consensus” though. I think the idea of scientific consensus is so important and central to the way we manage our common interests in a modern democracy that it must be defended. What’s more, I think it only needs defending because it is under attack.

We do come off as arrogant. I’m doing some thinking as to why. It surely isn’t because of what we do right, though. Imagine equally two great musicians, one arrogant, one not. What is the difference between them? Does the modest one not play beautiful music for fear of making hopeless piano-pounders like myself feel embarassed?

What we do as scientists is discover truth. We can’t be hiding that under a bushel barrel. You should fire all of us if claiming that we know how to discover knowledge is arrogance.

Consensus needs defending because “consensus” is one of the perfectly valid aspects of the scientific culture that is under attack. It is a delicate matter to defend it, because of all the various traps being set. However, this isn’t a point we can afford to concede.

While letting generations go by without acknowledging how carbon emisssions impact the planet and making some steps to change would be a travesty, it is hard to say that throwing science away altogether wouldn’t be worse. This isn’t bathwater we are throwing away, but let’s at least keep an eye on the baby, shall we?

Why truth is losing ground

It stands to reason that there would be a split in tendency to believe the science based on political persuasion; those more inclined to favor collective action will be more willing to take seriously a phenomenon which seems to indicate a need for collective action than those who are disinclined.

The huge opinion spread on climate change is disconcerting though, and the trend toward increasing disbelief among the right while the substantive evidence against them becomes ever more compelling is downright alarming.

To some extent even this is actually not hard to understand. The commercial interests that are threatened by the actual facts of the matter have an enormous motivation to confuse the public discourse, and they play on natural inclinations. What is hard to understand is how spectacularly successful they have become in moving their audience ever further away from the center of gravity that the facts portend.

I do note an increasing testiness and terseness from the leading posters on [RealClimate], and even occasionally from the editors in response to such provocations. I would like to caution that this behavior plays very much into the hands of the malefactors and their innocent sympathizers. They are trying, all too successfully, to convince their audience of several things including

  • that there is a substantive scientific controversy (which delays and dilutes considerations of policy) about even the most well-established basic facts
  • that the presentation of a consensus, even on totally unambiguously established results, is in itself an indication of dishonesty, bullying and arrogance
  • that the motivation for all this fuss is a deeply corrupt scientific establishment that is motivated to lie because of huge and rapidly increasing grant money. (Don’t we wish…)

It all ties together into a pretty clever strategy:

  1. say things that are exasperatingly ignorant
  2. get real experts with little understanding of polemics to express their exasperation
  3. cast that exasperation as arrogance and bullying

That’s not the whole strategy (for instance there’s the “house of cards” strategy that tries to make out that the whole “global warming theory” is abstruse and delicate, and that any single error is enough to “disprove” the “theory”) but it’s emerging as a central feature.

The best counter is to avoid the appearance of arrogance in public forums. Accordingly, if I could venture my advice to serious informed posters:

  • Invariably begin with an opening statement that is as accessible as possible to the broadest audience; and conclude with an accessible summary of the evidence for your point.
  • Write to the reader, not the correspondent. Keeping in mind that the correspondent is at least as likely to be a paid agent provocateur or a stubborn dogmatist as a serious partner in search of truth, do not forget that the reader may have a different presumption of who is dogmatic than is actually the case
  • Avoid expressing impatience in ways that might appear to confirm the reader’s suspicion that those advancing the “consensus” view
    are not open to new evidence. Be very careful in explaining, repeatedly and calmly, that some of the counter-arguments we hear are totally at odds with the facts, and that put together they don’t constitute a coherent hypothesis. Don’t snip or huff no matter how many times you see the same nonsense repeated; the writer knows this history very well but the target reader does not.

The fact that regular posters and even occasionally editors here are being baited into intemperate statements plays into the hands of the malefactors. Justifiable anger and frustration plays out as arrogance.

Preaching to the choir is beside the point. That there is an influential segment of the society which is becoming more rather than less skeptical is a hugely serious problem. It would be best if realclimate were part of the solution, but we are up against very clever opponents who don’t want it to turn out that way.

Please remember (though they may, by personalizing matters, try to make you forget) that your effect on the third party reader is vastly more important than your effect on the person who is writing. Your correspondent may well be deliberately trying to make you look nasty or arrogant under the pretense of some weakly substantive argument. Nothing you can say will cause that person to change their opinion, because what they are voicing is not actually an opinion about a matter of fact but rather a tactic in a battle for influence over the casually interested.

If you find yourself angry the best way to fight back is to say nothing and let someone else do the talking. If you win the game of substance and your opponent wins the game of polemics, in the end your purpose in participating in the discussion is not achieved.