irrational discourse

Posted December 27th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin

No need to waste time going over all of the “Over 400 prominent scientists” that the U.S. Senate U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Ranking Minority Member Senator Inhofe Report Inhofe Report claims “Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007.” You don’t have to poke far beneath the headline to find quite a few of these who did not actually dispute the science of global warming, which should cast doubt on the credibility of the entire report. I just looked at one, which does no such thing:

Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Steve Rayner of Oxford authored a report prominently featured in the UK journal Nature in October 2007 calling on the UN to “radically rethink climate policy,” and they cautioned against a “bigger” version of Kyoto with even more draconian provisions. Prins and Rayner’s report in the influential journal bluntly declared “… as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions [Kyoto] has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reduction in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.” Their report was titled “Time to Ditch Kyoto” and was highlighted in an October 24, 2007 National Post article. “But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reduction in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change.” The report also noted, “Kyoto’s supporters often blame non-signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia, for its woes.” The report continued, “But the Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job.” Prins and Rayner instead urged investment in new technologies and adaptation as the most promising method to deal with climate change. (LINK)

Deliberate confusion of scientific disagreement with disagreement over whether Kyoto is the right approach or not is no surprise coming from Inhofe and has even become predictable. Unfortunately, and much more insidious – it is also becoming predictable that this would be reported as a legitimate scientific disagreement by Andrew Revkin, at the New York Times – who usually does credible reporting and does not himself question whether or not the fundamentals of global warming are scientifically established. From his Dot Earth blog:

But when you sift through the studies, what emerges (to me at any rate) is not so much the shattering of a consensus as a portrait of one corner of the absolutely normal, and combative, arena in which scientific ideas emerge and either thrive or fade.

Revkin is confusing the normal combative scientific arena with the science for policy arena in which anything goes, and where journalists are supposedly paid to detect precisely this kind of BS or, at the very least check the facts and know the difference between spin and legitimate scientific processes of review. When they don’t, BS becomes a normal part of our post-normal public discourse, which has become tedious and distracting, but still indicative of a need for greater public appreciation of the process of science – as well as for scientists to appreciate the nature of the political process…. Since rebutting denialists is what seems to draw traffic, I’ll use it a a hook to talk about what is normal – a question often asked, given the name of this blog.

My working definition of normal is a situation we accept as impossible to change – once upon a time that included slavery. In a previous more thoughtful post, Revkin discusses this point himself, citing the sociologist Robert Brulle:

Basically, I read it that we become used to the environment we live in. Since most of the population has very limited or no access to a relatively unpolluted environment, they take it as normal that you can’t eat the fish in the river, that the air is always dirty, etc.

The same applies to public discourse. With limited or no access to an unpolluted public sphere in which claims can be validated, there is little hope for protecting the rest of it. Since Revkin is seeking suggestions, and, (as does PNT) aims to promote information exchange and learning, one suggestion I have is that he read some of the papers posted to Brulle’s site, such as this one (pdf), which reviews the basics of Habermas Theory of Communicative Action and its implications for environmental policy. Here Brulle points out that, “the claims of the speaker must be validated for discourse to be rational” – open and rational discourse being the basis for the formation of legitimate laws in post-metaphysical conditions, i.e., a pluralist modern society in which laws can no longer be legitimated with metaphysical arguments. This principle is what provides the basis for the ideal of a constitutional democracy with separation of powers, which relies on the existence of a strong public sphere for deliberation that can hold its own against money and administrative power. Presumably, that is (or was) the reason journalists enjoy certain privileges. But see also this one (pdf) in which he discusses the role the media plays as gatekeepers of what gets into the public discourse. It is not the first time the media has served to impede progress.

Again, welcome to Post-Normal Times – and I’m not just referring to this blog. My brief working definition of Post-Normal Times being times of rapid change, as we enter into uncharted territory, when not just the presence of glaciers, but even basic social norms can no longer be taken for granted, and what remains of the public sphere seems to be held together by the blogosphere. More detailed analysis of the rest of the 400 from Romm, Desmog, Maribo, and the Rabett, – who found that one of the 400 or so is a gardener


A second suggestion for Revkin is that he provide a review of the book by Eric Lambin, The Middle Path: Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe, that he only mentioned in a post in which he discussed a review he did do of books by The Lomborg, Newt Gingrich, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger, which was similarly misleading in that it continued to promote the mythical middle. I have only read the introduction which is freely available online, but if Lambin’s book lives up to what it promises, it identifies and reviews areas of legitimate disagreement in climate related science that do merit impartial coverage that clarifies the value judgments involved. While I’m on book recommendations, I’ll also throw in the four volume set by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone on Human Choice and Climate Change, even though published in ’98, still a good reference and probably still the most exhaustive compilation of material on the climate science and policy interface.

And now for my year-end pitch. Unlike Revkin, this blogger doesn’t get paid, and doesn’t post often enough to ask for donations, but if more readers used the book links, and the Amazon search box in the side-bar for whatever else, we might even be able to recover site hosting fees. Thank you and happy new year to the modest but regular readership of the Post-Normal Times and those of you who have linked to the site.

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