Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency, Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

Once in a while, I suppose, even lies are necessary. If a person in your surroundings is insane and behaving dangerously it may occasionally make sense to play into their delusion. In my opinion, such cases are extremely rare, although it appears to me that lying to young children about Santa Claus is somehow considered charming. Sorry, Virgina…

In the public sphere, is it ever justifiable to lie? I would say no, never, (not that there aren’t slippery slopes about).

Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency,
Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

I note in passing that if we accept the above spectrum, it is “idiocy”, which is less malign in intent, that has no adaptive value in any situation. But detecting idiots is not so hard. Our problem is to detect who is lying, and especially who is lying well.

In the extensive discussions about Lomborg, the question is unavoidable. Indeed, it is hard to think of another person so difficult to place on the spectrum! Is he telling the truth as he understands it, or is he dissembling so vigorously that he is not above ignoring evidence, or is he even consciously willing to skew the evidence when it suits him?

This comes up because the latest skeptic to join our crew disagrees with me (surprise!) about the value of the new or at least new -to-me blog Things Break, which hosted a very interesting rebuttal to Lomborg, to which John Mashey chimed in with some very interesting thoughts as usual.

“Bernie” believes this article is off-puttingly “strident”. (See comments here). So in Bernie’s eyes, since Lomborg is (to him) among the most credible of the inactivists, this detracts from Things’ credibility and puts them toward the bleaker end of the truth-lies spectrum.

For myself I am definitely a believer in immediate action to minimize the risk of “CAGW” and unsurprisingly I find Lomborg intrinsically implausible. On reflection, as I have tried to explain on this blog on occasion, this is for the same reason that I find Stern implausible, that is, its basis on a theoretical platform (conventional growth-oriented economics) whose axiomatic beliefs are not plausible. Therefore I have little interest in the details of his peculiar arguments.

It’s not that I don’t believe in prioritization. It’s that I don’t believe anything that begins by deprioritizing the stability of the biosphere is based on useful principles.

But does Lomborg believe his argument himself? Is he being impartial and honest? I think it’s hard to say that he’s being entirely scientific, in Feynman’s sense, that is, I doubt he is treating his own opinions with the greatest doubt. But he may yet aspire to impartial honesty. Certainly he is trying very hard to present such an impression.

In other words, it is of legitimate interest to examine not only whether we think Lomborg’s ideas are worthy of consideration, but ultimately when they come up wanting, to consider whether Lomborg himself believes them.

And that is where the question of stridency comes up in “Leebert”‘s comments to Things’ Lomborg article:

“Really, this is nothing but shrill polemics that can only serve to galvanize the faithful on either side of the debate.”

Bernie sees things similarly.

It’s a puzzle, knowing how much weight to give scientific balance in such an obviously ill-balanced debate. Science can’t function without neutrality as well as self-doubt and openness to criticism. But most nonscientists nowadays are used to such crass self-promotion that any expression of even the slightest sliver of doubt is greeted with derision. The moral obligation to steer the planet in a sane direction now that we are driving certainly can compete with the scientific priority.

In the end, I think Eli is right. Different people will react in different ways, and it’s inevitable that a gamut of responses will be displayed. You have to break through the fog however you can. One man’s truth is another man’s stridency.

Of course, we should not go beyond stridency into idiocy or lies. But I think a great deal of our problem comes from the difficulty in distinguishing between them. If you attack an opinion that is merely misguided as if it were malicious, you come off as arrogant, while if you try to cope with an opinion that is malicious as if it were misguided, you can fall prey to all sorts of polemical gamesmanship. These are rocky waters, but it would certainly help to know who is genuinely if misguidedly trying to be helpful and who is just pissing in the pool.

So as a puzzle, have a look at this, the denialist drivel of the month and decide for yourself: idiocy or lies? Let’s play Idiocy Or Lies?

But what does it mean to lie as opposed to spin?

Knowingly using non-facts in support of your position is not mere stridency. Selecting facts that buttress your position and ignoring other facts is a very delicate ethical matter (unless you are an attorney, in which case it is apparently a matter of principle). You can’t say everything you know unless you don’t know very much. You have to choose what you talk about and what you avoid. That’s spin, and for an ethical person spin is a marginal case, sometimes necessary but fraught with dilemmas.
On the other hand, there is brazen misrepresentation of the facts. What I’m trying to do here is call some attention to the difference between selecting facts (morally gray area) and deliberately misinterpreting them (lying). Here’s a fine example.

I’m not an unalloyed Obama fan, but he pretty much nails it in this video. “They know it’s not true.” Look at what the tire guage ploy tried to accomplish. It tried to create a false public perception based on misrepresentation of the nature of a true incident. This went so far as to make it pretty clear that whoever promulgating it must have know it to be false.

People do these things. People are paid to do these things. They lie. They brazenly lie. They try to build their lies on actual facts but they deliberately are trying to present untruths. This is what lying looks like. They say things even though they know those things aren’t true.

Fortunately they fell flat on their faces on this particular one, but don’t forget that they will try again and again and again.

Which brings us back to how to react to lies. If it is stridency to call a lie a “they know it’s not true”, so be it. Perhaps that will put off some people already inclined to be put off. And while the spectrum of honesty and dishonesty has nothing to do with left or right, the really talented and well-paid liars are pretty much on one side of the climate story at present.

If you think someone is lying (or stupid, or some combination) in a way that has consequences for the safety of the world, it’s hard to see what the problem is with stridency or what the alternative to that might be. Those who have bet so much on the wrong horse that they can’t be reached will be angered, but maybe others will notice that there actually is a lot of misinformation about. You just have to say “if this isn’t lying it’s stupidity”. What else could you say? I respectfully disagree? No. At some point the opposition leaves the bounds of the respectable. In such cases it’s necessary to say so.

Perhaps we can make a sport of it. Again, try this site for the first round of “Idiocy or Lies?”. Do you spot the obvious fallacy? If these are not lies, if the author does not understand that the reasoning is invalid, how did the author spend so much time on the article without noticing?

Is it reasonable to say that it is not just wrong, but either stupidly or maliciously wrong or both? It may be pretty strident, but this kind of wrongness calls for some pretty strong criticism.
I’m still not sure about Lomborg. I don’t underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. However, I am not offended by the tone taken by Things Break in taking him down. Your mileage may vary.
Update: Edited somewhat for clarity. See also this prior posting.

Update: A related entry appears on Deltoid. It, with its associated comments, contains some of the best and most useful conversation I have ever seen on a blog. I’m honored to have gotten a link-back from it.

Taking Lomborg Seriously

The NYTimes is featuring an article today on Bjorn Lomborg’s take on climate change.

While the content won’t be unfamiliar to most people who follow the issue, let me quote the gist of it:

“Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”

In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.

But preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive, which means less money for the most serious threats today — and later this century. You can imagine plenty of worst-case projections that have nothing to do with climate change, as Dr. Lomborg reminded me at the end of our expedition.

I don’t think these points can be dismissed as easily as a lot of my fellow climate worry-warts tend to do. My response to this way of thinking is to question the very notion of “wealth”, which surely must mean something different on a planet which is full of people than on a planet with open space and natural ecosystems. For instance, the “value” of a free ranging species of bird or butterfly is much higher now that so many of them are in decline, but there’s no sensible way to reduce that to dollars.

I realize this is a lot to swallow all at once. Is there another way of looking at it that doesn’t require a total rethink of economics?

I think there is. Lomborg suggests putting more emphasis on our “other problems” and less into climate change. The difficulty with this view is that we no longer have the luxury of thinking of our problems as decoupled. Our problems include:

  • increasing superstition and xenophobia, tendency to war
  • decline of the natural environment, especially the oceans
  • immediate limitations on liquid fuel
  • desire for increasing wealth in backward countries
  • dependency on extractive water sources, food security
  • accumulation of trace substances not appearing in nature in the environment

Assuming the Hansen rapid sea level rise scenarios are unlikely (which I’m not sure about), climate change will not kill us. What it will do is this.

Climate change makes addressing almost every one of the principal global issues more difficult to address. There is no case where it makes matters easier.

Lomborg does advocate a carbon tax, so he really isn’t the enemy people make him out to be. I am not at all sure the way many people react to him is justified. Based on what I have seen, I think it’s reasonable to consider him intellectually serious and honest. I don’t think he understands the complexity of our predicament, though.

In a sense I actually agree with Lomborg. “Climate change” is not the problem. Managing the earth is the problem. Success is not in avoiding this or that global calamity. We have to avoid all of them, and they are intertwined.

There is only one big problem, how to get the biosphere into a sustainable condition. Economists are ateached to an essentially nonsustainable concept of perpetual growth, so they are not helping. They have a good point that climate change should not be viewed in isolation.

Update 9/14: Joe Romm’s first anti-Lomborg article discussed polar bears, about which I have no opinion. His second anti-Lomborg article addresses sea level rise. It is very clear that Lomborg got this badly wrong, but I still don’t see that he did so dishonestly. People are easily confused about things that aren’t their core expertise.

Anyway, I specifically excluded sea level rise above when discussing whether Lomborg could be right on his own terms. The confusion about sea level rise is attributable in large measure to systematic understatement on the part of the IPCC. Lomborg is not alone in missing the fine print, and this still is no indication of intellectual dishonesty.

I still think it would be best to engage Lomborg respectfully, rather than trying to tie him to the lawyer’s science of the main denialists. Of course, I recommend being
studiously polite even to the slimiest of the opposition, a tactic most of them know well enough. In the case of Lomborg, the respect would be genuine. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I see a man thinking for himself and advancing his opinions, even in the face of vitriolic opposition. He may be wrong, but that doesn’t make him dishonest.

My opinion remains tentative but Romm has not dissauded me from it.

What I’m complaining about

This way of thinking seems literally insane to me.

These numbers mean pretty much nothing. There is no purpose to arguing whose numbers are right. The problem is what is at risk, and how much it is at risk. People. Places. Beauty. Culture. Safety. Stability. Sanity. Peace.

Quantifying it in GDP gained or lost is so thoroughly senseless that I am rendered speechless. (Well, maybe only for a minute or two. It does make me shake my head a whole lot, though.)