Don’t Swat the Skeptic

Climate activists, climate deniers, climate heretics. Every era has its debates that ring with the moral fervor of religion.

I’ve had some challenging and productive conversations recently about the truth and propaganda around Anthropogenic climate change, spurred by a few weeks at home with my dad. He has an uncanny knack for needling my (and others’) moral intuitions—mostly by confidently asserting a valid viewpoint that runs against mainstream liberal thought.

It’s inconvenient, and at times, downright annoying to be confronted with a skeptic. Socrates described himself as a gadfly: “in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” Why else do you think the Athenians put him to death?

Naturally, I felt affronted by some of my father’s bold assertions—that human-caused climate change is a lie propagated by the UN; that it isn’t CO2 but in fact solar flares contributing to climate patterns; that there are vested interests pushing the anti-carbon agenda and paying a lot of scientists’ paychecks. As I noticed that my inner broiling steadily precluded any possibility for a well-reasoned response, I tried to take a few moments to avoid reflex; the enemy of rationality.

When one of our strongly-held beliefs is confronted, we feel a visceral kick. The sensation is especially common when discussing those Big Issues In The World that we’re encouraged (rightly or wrongly) to take a firm stance on: politics, climate, social justice, healthcare, eduction. Like wearing a wool sweater in DC summer, disagreement feels sticky.

Yet isn’t the irritant of the skeptic an opportunity for valuable introspection—figuring out the origin of your belief and accompanying emotion; then evaluating its current function and future usefulness in your life? To me, it’s an opportunity to practice philosophy: scrutinizing a set of beliefs, prodding around in the muds of intuition, and seeking the hidden frameworks that can reconcile opposing viewpoints. I’ve found that thinking philosophically makes me less concerned about the outcome of an argument; more about the process of developing my own thinking.

Climate change is a complex, highly politicized, and polarizing topic. There are several narrative strands, each interwoven with specific moral, scientific, and epistemic assumptions. All of us lean towards one narrative or another, often based on beliefs we never consciously formed. I formed mine at least a decade ago in Geography class, and have topped up with newspaper articles and conversations, here and there, ever since.

First, there’s the narrative largely aligned with the political left, that humans are without doubt contributing to global warming, a set of irreversible changes to the earth’s climate patterns that could potentially be catastrophic for life on earth. Specifically, human-contributed CO2 emissions—and other pollutants—contribute significantly to this warming effect. It extolls us to change our behavior by demonizing fossil fuels, seeking renewable energy sources, reducing consumption, and, for some, decrying anyone who does not follow the movement as a denier; a heretic.

Then there’s the narrative, often aligned with the political right, that humans are not contributing to global warming, or at least not in a particularly significant way; that the anti-carbon-emissions movement is more about politics than science, and economically and socially benefits those who endorse it; that some of the “settled science” of climate change is in fact up for debate. This narrative extolls us to see hippie-dippie liberals as bigoted and idiotic, and to decry their their lobbying and activist-ing for change as ultimately unnecessary and maybe even destructive. This narrative also supports a certain economic approach; it gives us continued moral permission to continue harvesting and using fossil fuels for industrialization and economic growth both here and abroad.

It’s a classic cultural skirmish. Each side seeks the smug superiority of permanent scientific and moral victory.

Like most culture wars, excavate beyond the bluster, and the ego, and the (sometimes gleeful) exchange of rhetorical jabs on both sides, and you’ll find the underlying values that combust to keep disagreement smoldering. While some of these are likely irreconcilable, I contend—based on a generous view of human nature—one would find some overlap in the desire for humans to live quality lives, and not wanting to see Earth, this one planet we came from and will for the foreseeable future live on, made uninhabitable.

Of course, there are other climate narratives, less commonly plastered onto headlines because they are too nuanced—and dull to lay-readers—to attract clicks. These narratives could help to reconcile, or at least shed alternate light, on the extremes. For example, it is worth pointing out that one of the hallmarks of science is that its theories that are falsifiable. But in a battle for the planet’s destiny, who wants to hear from a  measured, doubtful, qualified voice?

The definition of skepticism is twofold. In common terms, skepticism is an attitude of doubt. Being skeptical means being disposed to incredulity, either in general or toward a particular topic.

A few months ago I watched a documentary about the Flat Earther movement—an example of what happens when skepticism of science is taken to its extreme. The result: a fully-fledged belief that the earth is flat, that there are ice walls separating us from a precipice into space, and that NASA is projecting the stars into the sky.

Yet, to liberals who just let out a guffaw of superiority, I might ask what they think of the fact that The Guardian has chosen to accept with 100% certainty the theory that human emissions of CO2 are the leading cause of global warming. Beware the allergy to skepticism, for the extreme non-skeptic is a human sheep, a slave to cultural input; manipulable, idealistic, and intellectually ill-equipped, or lazy.

So, if too much skepticism leads to Flat Earth, and too little leads to political movements that have lost any doubt in science, what is the optimal amount?

In some ways, I prefer the strictly philosophical definition of skepticism: the theory that certain knowledge is, simply, impossible. For one, it leads to humility. It leads to caution.

To have complete knowledge of, for example, our planet’s climate dynamics, would put us in the position of God. We don’t. What we do have is troves of data; we have emerging trends; we have the results of experiments with varying levels of validity to the outside world. I hope that mainstream science remembers its intellectual virtues, and its purpose: to seek truth, rather than advancing a political agenda.

Of course, it’s up to each of us to find the optimal level of skepticism: of the historical narratives we were taught as children; of the current narratives in the media; of the various species of truth we are peddled on a daily basis by scientists, politicians, and advertisements. And then, to make a decision on how you’re going to vote, act, and live. (That’s the hardest part.)

No doubt some skeptic will come along and criticize that decision. Maybe a barefoot man confronting you in the agora; maybe your father, emailing you links to articles in 2019.

Feel annoyed first, if you must. But do not swat the gadfly.

2 Comments

  1. This is a rather brilliant post o daughter of mine.  I will be interested to see if readers actually engage with your analysis, or can’t see beyond the culture wars.:) I hope you are having a lovely weekend. Your skeptical Dad.Gxx

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