Between Scientists & Citizens

Listening to what can’t be said

with 4 comments

Judith Curry’s characterization of last week’s PBS report “Climate of Doubt” as “predictable” pretty much captures it. It takes a pretty short memory to think that in 2007 the forces of climate good were on the verge of political victory, snatched from them only by the might of the evil Koch brothers supplemented by the covert work of a host of political operatives (who, by the way, interviewed rather well). I was sorry that the counter-narrative Matt Nisbet’s group put forward in the Climate Shift report hasn’t gotten any traction.

There was one interesting moment, though:  something that wasn’t said.

A reporter told the story of her attempt to interview Republican Congressional representatives on (1) the existence of, (2) the attribution of, and (3) policy options for, climate change. She was met by refusals to answer, including by escape attempts involving elevators.  This was interpreted as yet another sign of the domination of the Republican party by special interests.

I’d take it a bit differently.

Public talk by responsible political actors is accountable:  if the system is working well, people will get in trouble for saying something that turns out to be wrong.

The exchange of arguments in policy deliberations isn’t meant to persuade, as much as to change the terrain of what is sayable. For example, the long work of the civil rights movement did not eliminate racism, but it made openly racist arguments unsayable in mainstream political discourse. That makes it harder to defend racist policies, and in the long run can result in the eventual extinction of beliefs that cannot receive public acknowledgement.  Thus many of my students don’t believe that racism exists any longer, because they’ve never heard legitimized racist talk.

It’s not particularly surprising that Republic representatives, responsible to their base, aren’t going to respond with a vigorous “Yes! Yes! Yes!” when asked about climate change.  (See entry for Political Suicide, subcategory Bob Inglis.)  But notice that they didn’t take the easy alternative route of just saying “No.” Instead, they ran away.

So:  In the halls of Congress, representatives refuse to question the existence of climate change. Both presidential candidates acknowledge the existence of climate change.  In the blogosphere as a whole, my impression is that the more responsible voices are disputing only the C in CAGW–a big change over the last few years.  In sum, skepticism about the existence of climate change seems to be inching into the category of the unsayable.

This should open opportunities for collaboration on policies aimed at adaptation to climate change, since a whole range of arguments against adaptation now can’t be said. Not surprisingly, well-funded interests on the right will try to block the deliberations. But progress can equally be blocked if the forces of climate good refuse to move forward until their opponents grovel before them, repent their errors, and publicly confess the full climate catechism. We’d all be better off if we didn’t force each other to agree, but instead listened for what isn’t being said.

P.S. Good to be back to blogging!  Maybe this time I’ll keep it up.

Written by jeangoodwin

October 27, 2012 at 10:04 am

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Jean, good to see you back blogging!

    curryja

    October 27, 2012 at 10:43 am

  2. Really appreciate your thought provoking posts. Though I don’t agree with the statement “In the blogosphere as a whole, my impression is that the more responsible voices are disputing only the C in CAGW–a big change over the last few years. ” Afaik, all of the responsible voices have been disputing the C in CAGW all along. For example, my first foray “Biased Towards Extinction” http://www.co2science.org/articles/V7/N19/EDIT.php in 2004. Steve McIntyre has always said this was an issue worthy of concern, but was concerned with the way statistics were being misused to promote alarm, eg the hockeystick. Lubos – etc.

    Inmo a large part of the issues and conflicts can be viewed as grasping for prestige, so a statement like “forces of climate good refuse to move forward until their opponents grovel’ just seems provocative. The “‘good”‘ as I and many of the “citizen scientists” (who do not have prestige as a possible benefit) has always been good science.

    laterite

    October 30, 2012 at 5:46 am

  3. Hello,

    In your site, we can find these position papers:

    http://www.co2science.org/about/positionpapers.php

    Here is a first claim:

    > A weak short-term correlation between CO2 and temperature proves nothing about causation.

    Would you say that this amounts to be “disputing the C in CAGW all along”?

    Here’s another one:

    > Elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 are a boon to the biosphere.

    Would you say that this kind of claim is made in a responsible voice?

    Many thanks!

    willard (@nevaudit)

    November 12, 2012 at 7:22 am

  4. Jean,

    Happy to see you back.

    When you said:

    > The exchange of arguments in policy deliberations isn’t meant to persuade, as much as to change the terrain of what is sayable.

    I was saying to myself: “Foucault, sors de ce corps!”

    You have to agree, though, that there is still a racist component in today’s political discourse. Perhaps what changes is how the topics get conveyed. Not that everything that could be conveyed half a century ago can still be so. But I believe you get my idea.

    ***

    I also note:

    > [P]rogress can equally be blocked if the forces of climate good refuse to move forward until their opponents grovel before them, repent their errors, and publicly confess the full climate catechism.

    This also applies to hockeysticks and other climate paraphernalia: models, instrumental data, etc.

    There is an industry built on anti-climate catechism. This industry includes all of laterite examples, and many more. That this industry claims being about Good Science only shows that this is the trademark over which the war is being waged. The theme is so pervasive that I have a tag for it:

    http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com/tagged/GoodScience

    A work in progress.

    What I want to convey is that public mortification based on righteous hindsight is nothing but a contemporary rehearsal of pittura infamante.

    ***

    In any case, every time I hear “we only want Good Science”, I am reminded of Mars Attack:

    We come in peace.

    We only want good science.

    As if appealing to our own intentions were valid arguments.

    willard (@nevaudit)

    November 12, 2012 at 8:28 am


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