Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Hearing things from uptight, shortsighted, narrowminded hypocrites

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The New York Times, you may have noticed, ran a truly terrible article insinuating all sorts of terrible things about Rajendra K. Pachauri, the leader of a crucial UN panel tasked with investigating climate change. If you’re looking for a thorough rebuttal of the article read this great post at Climate Progress.

But it’s the type of thing that makes me very depressed about our public discourse. Seeing someone like Pachauri get smeared is evidence, of course, that there are powerful interests who will do anything to assail climate science. And by all accounts they are working: public belief in climate change is sometimes shockingly low and it appears cap and trade is dead in the senate.

The problem is this puts lower-d democrats like myself in an awkward position. I really dislike the fetishization of experts. There is an ugly history of progressives hiding behind the supposed expertise of scientists and other intellectuals to provide legitimacy for manipulating and controlling the lower classes. Linda Gordon once had a great article about how the early Progressive movement had too often assumed that disinterested scientists understood social problems better than those on the receiving end of those social problems. She wrote of an example in which a mining community suffered from TB. The scientists blamed the lifestyle habits of the largely Mexican and black work-force, claiming their unclean living conditions and supposed sexual promiscuousness was causing the disease. The workers, on the other hand, consistently- and correctly it turned out- held that their unsafe work conditions were to blame.

The point is that scientists are not super-men, not Platonic Philosopher-Kings. Often, they get things wrong even according to their own criteria. More to the point, science, like all human activity, is embedded within the society that it comes out of. Racist societies, for instance, produce racist science.

Finally, most of the critical questions for our society are moral and political; a scientific worldview may provide few answers to these. Worse, there is a certain kind of Gradgrindish scientific and technical worldview which may even be hostile to the claims of solidarity or morality which we base our politics on. In fact, good politics requires both rationality and empathy, both skill and imagination, both tax-collecters and poets. “God keep us,” Blake protested at the industrial revolution, from “a single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

The problem, of course, is that dishonest and greedy people manipulate this reasonable skepticism of experts for evil ends. The Coal Industry doesn’t fight global warming because of their dispassionate examination of the evidence, or, like the mine-workers, because they have some relevant experience that leads them to distrust the science, and certainly not because of their romantic belief in the variety of the human experience. They do so because they want to continue to make tons of money polluting the planet.

And so we’ve seen over and over in the climate debate, people with serious economic investment in defeating climate legislation have intervened in the debate in ways that are deeply harmful to the public discourse. As Harry Frankfurt might say, they are Bullshitters- not liars- since they don’t even care whether what they are saying is correct or not. They are engaging in bad faith argument. Just as the power of Goldman-Sachs makes a mockery of the idea of a free and fair economic marketplace, so the power of these industry-financed lobbyists, newspapers, and think tanks, make a mockery out of the “marketplace of ideas.” In one particularly egregious example, the oil lobby offered $10,000 to any scientist who would speak out against a global warming study. Throw enough money around, buy off enough scientists, finance enough bullshit studies, viciously attack every innocent scientist, and eventually, as we see, even The New York Times will get suckered in.

So what do us democrats, with our belief in the common man, do to fight back at the climate change deniers? Do we fall back on the authority of scientists, which is the one thing that doesn’t seem to be up for sale, even if it means ignoring our faith in the democratic citizen? Or do we acknowledge that experts can be problematic, and delay action on probably the single most important political issue of the day?

I actually don’t have any answers at all. I think we’re fucked. Neither solution works well. But as our Republic crumbles and our planet dies, I’d, for one, like to remind people how deeply harmful it is when powerful people, with big mouthpieces, engage in political and scientific debate in bad faith. They destroy the very “marketplace of ideas” that we rely on to have a functioning democracy, drowning out the voices of the everyday citizenry. And with the recent Supreme Court decision, things are just going to get much much worse.

(Wow… this got alot more pessimistic that I planned. Sorry…my next post will be sloppy and ridiculous, I promise.)
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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 11, 2010 at 09:25

One Response

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  1. perfect. one of me most favorite things I’ve ever read.

    steve

    February 11, 2010 at 11:07


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