home political and economic essays A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial

A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial

by David Brin, Ph.D.

The clear and distinct pattern that we see in the latest phase of the American Civil War — similar to what we saw in the earlier phases — has been an underlying theme of populist hatred of society's brightest and most skilled.

A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial

The schism over global climate change (GCC) has become an intellectual chasm, across which everyone perceives the other side as Koolaid-drinkers. Although I have mixed views of my own about the science of GCC, and have closely grilled a number of colleagues who are front-line atmospheric scientists (some at JPL), I'm afraid all the anecdotes and politics-drenched "questions" flying about right now aren't shedding light. They are, in fact, quite beside the point.

That is because science itself is the main issue: its relevance and utility as a decision-making tool.

Let there be no mistake, this is all about power, and the struggle goes way back. In Britain, the "Boffin Principle" long held that technical people have no business making policy suggestions to their betters. In America, waves of anti-intellectual populism — like the 19th Century Know Nothing Party — were deliberately stoked by aristocracies who saw the new, mental elites as a threat.

There have been counter-surges. In the 1930s, propelled by ambitious modernism and depression-era desperation, a briefly popular "Technocracy Movement" held that knowledge and skill should be paramount criteria for positions of leadership. A milder version of this eagerness for expertise was seen from Sputnik through the 1960s and 1970s, with glimmers during the Internet Boom years. (Notably, these were also lush times for science fiction literature.)

Of course, "Technocracy" was boneheaded and scary — though not as much as the new know-nothing era that we have endured during the last decade or so, a time when things became dicey even for the Civil Service and the U.S. Officer Corps. Chris Mooney documents how relentless this agenda has been, in The Republican War on Science. Though, let's be fair. If films like Avatar are any indication, a variant of dour anti-scientific fever rages on the left, as well.

This is the context in which we should reconsider the Climate Change Denial Movement. While murky in its scientific assertions — some claim the Earth isn't warming, while others say the ice-free Arctic won't be any of our doing — the core contention remains remarkably consistent. It holds that the 99% of atmospheric scientists who believe in GCC are suborned, stupid, incompetent, conspiratorial or untrustworthy hacks.

As part of a more general assault on the very notion of expertise, the narrative starts with a truism that is actually true:

"Not every smart person is wise..."

Only then extrapolates it, implicitly, to a blatant falsehood:

"All smartypants are unwise, all the time; and my uninformed opinion is equal to any expert testimony."

Does that sound like a polemical stretch? But it is precisely the implied subtext — a perverse kind of populism — at all levels of the War on Science. In the specific case of GCC, since almost all top atmospheric scientists accept human-propelled climate change, they must be all cretins, corrupt, or cowards.

Here's a telling point. This uniformity of craven venality has to include even the ambitious postdocs and recently-tenured junior professors who, in every other field, sift constantly for some flaw in the current paradigm in order to go gunning after the big boys and thus make a reputation. What, even the Young Guns are sellouts? Even the paladins of skeptical enquiry are conspiring together in a grand cabal to...

...to what? Ah, now the story gets even better. All the scientists and post-docs are colluding to foist this scam, in order to win a few ten-thousand dollar grants. This loose-change-grubbing, paradigm slavery is cited to explain the GCC imbroglio — while the oilcos and petroprinces, who operate major propaganda outlets and have TRILLIONS staked in the status quo... they have no agenda at all!

Of course, to typify any lawful profession as across-the-board corrupt or cowardly is absurd, but to so besmirch the one professional cohort that is unambiguously the most brave, individualistic, honest, curious and smart of all, well, there has to be an agenda behind such drivel — and there is one. The good old Boffin Effect.

My late colleague, Michael Crichton, crystallized it when he claimed "there is no such thing as scientific consensus," and thus he deemed it reasonable to ignore measures recommended by 99% of the people who actually know stuff about a problem that might damage our nation and world.

Now, as many of you know, I have my own complaints against expert communities. I'm known for promoting the "Age of Amateurs." But empowered citizenship should supplement, not replace, the people who actually know the most about a topic. Respect toward professionals is compatible with keeping an eye on them.

Especially since — and this is the kicker — all the major recommended actions to deal with Global Climate Change are things we should be doing, anyway.

That's the most bizarre aspect. I'd listen patiently to GGC Deniers and strive to answer their endlessly refurbished narratives, if they would only say the following first:

Okay, I'll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. Waste-not and a-penny-saved and cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness used to be good conservative attitudes. And so, for those reasons alone, let's join together and make a big (and genuine) push for efficiency.

Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in Global Climate Change, but these measures would also help deal with that too.

There, are you happy? Now, as gentlemen, and more in a spirit of curiosity than polemics, can we please corner some atmospheric scientists and force them into an extended teach-in, to answer some inconvenient questions?

When I meet a conservative who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheres guys I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

And the word "genuine" is important. Paying lip-service to "energy independence," while sabotaging it relentlessly, is something diametrically opposite to patriotism.

But that isn't the faux-narrative. Instead it boils down to "I hate smartypants." And it is thereupon understandable that (being human) the boffins are losing patience with the new Know Nothings.

monitoring the fall of civilizations

We appear to be at a cusp point, where the Western World chooses between two paths.

One is the trail of stupidity, leading to a cliff. Almost 100 years ago, in The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler transfixed the public with his certain-sounding explanations for why Europo-American society would soon dissolve into pain and despair, decadence and dust.

Pain did come... largely dealt out by people who believed as Spengler did, in the cult of pessimism. And yet, the optimists prevailed. George Marshall showed the way into a better era, filled with challenges but also progress. Today, most babies that are born actually live good lives, and we have been to the Moon, and race and gender and class are less deterministic of your fate, and you are sharing thoughts with me across a worldwide brain that we forged with our own ingenuity and hands.

Pessimism isn't dead. It never went away. Dire warnings, like Jared Diamond's Collapse (see my review) and James Cameron's Avatar serve partly as dire warnings, to help us see the dangers, but also deliver doses of poison, by railing that we westerners are all hopeless fools bereft of decent institutions or problem-solving skills. Or even hope.

In fact, the clear-eyed view is neither gloomy nor starry-confident. It was the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, who I believe got it right. After studying dozens of past cycles, he declared that civilizations thrive when they invest faith and hope in their creative minorities. When they see the future as a destination and willingly adapt new ways to reach it.

Toynbee — after surveying many tales of rise and fall — concluded that cultures start to fail when those creative minorities become distrusted, or are starved of capital, or left out in the cold. Or when they are shunned by those in power.

I mention this, because the clear and distinct pattern that we see in the latest phase of the American Civil War — similar to what we saw in the earlier phases — has been an underlying theme of populist hatred of society's brightest and most skilled.

This theme pervades everything we see from the "movement" nowadays. Distrust of the Civil Service and the US Officer Corps. The relentless War on Science. The boos that surge, at sneering mention of the word "Harvard." The use of anti-intellectualism to divert attention from a far more worrisome elite — a rising aristocracy of almost-feudal wealth.

Let's be clear. I am not saying that intellectuals are always right. I know plenty who are foolish. Nor is wealth inherently evil... I aspire to acquire more, through delivery of excellent goods and services, and I know some damn-fine billionaires. Nor is there anything wrong with salt-of-the-earth fellows like those Redneck Comedy Tour guys, whose charm could win over even alien invaders. (Even if they don't read sci-fi.)

Still, if anybody ever knew about what makes civilizations rise and fall, Arnold Toynbee knew what he was talking about.

Moreover, the propaganda campaign against our creative people is so intense, so pure, and so relentlessly across-the-board, that it simply cannot be an accident. The correlation is just too perfect.

Somebody wants us to fail.


A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial

about this article

"A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial" (published in full here) was originally published on Open Salon, February 2010.

Copyright © 2010, 2017 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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cited in this article

Avatar (film #ad)

David Brin, "Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?"

David Brin, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (a review)"

David Brin, "Forgetting our American Tradition"

David Brin, "Perspectives and Responses to the Ritualization of Climate Change Denial"

David Brin, "Skeptics versus Deniers: Creating a Climate of 'No!'"

David Brin, "The Value — and Empowerment — of Common Citizens in an Age of Danger"

Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (book #ad)

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Volume 1 (book #ad)

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI (book #ad)

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 2: Abridgement of Volumes VII-X (book #ad)

who denies, and why

letting others have their say

Lee McIntyre, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience

Shawn Otto, The War on Science

Michael Specter, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives

Daniel J. Levitin, Weaponized Lies

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?


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