Monday, June 6, 2011

Smoking, Climate Change, And The EU

Jonah Goldberg posts an excerpt from the Sydney Morning Herald. Here are the first and last paragraphs of that excerpt:
Surely it’s time for climate-change deniers to have their opinions forcibly tattooed on their bodies.

[...]

Not that the other side isn’t frustrating. There’s a type of green zealot who appears to relish climate change. Every rise in sea levels is noted excitedly. Every cyclone is applauded and claimed as a noisy, deadly witness for their side.

Jonah then writes:
It’s that last line I actually find the most infuriating. This guy is trying to position himself as a thoughtful centrist, against the excesses of both sides.

This reminded FLG of a podcast interview he was listening to the other day about ethical blind spots. Here's a link to the mp3. As part of this, the interviewee makes the case that an effective rhetorical strategy is to demand an unreasonable level of proof, a smoking gun, and this distracts from the real issue. FLG, always on the lookout for rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies, found this interesting. But then they moved on and FLG grew concerned. FLG's transcription from around the 23 minute mark below:
Interviewer: In that last chapter, you look at the tobacco industry and the issue around smoking causing cancer and then, currently, the energy industry and the denial of climate change. I think most people would believe, at least in the United States, that Big Tobacco lost that fight. It took a long time, but more or less the default position of most people is that smoking causes cancer and the tobacco industry spent a lot of time and money stalling that final decision in society. But when it comes to climate change, I think the jury is still kind of out. Are there lessons that can be learned from how Big Tobacco lost the cancer debate that can be to how energy is shaping the climate change debate?

Interviewee: Absolutely. I think 40 years ago we would be saying the jury is still out on tobacco. So, I think there is a very direct parallel. And I would say rather than trying to conclusively determine what is causing climate change we should accept that it is there and say, "what are the very best strategies we can use to address that?" So, we could go on, and I think the science should continue, and I think we should continue to investigate what is causing it, but we know probably, from some of the biggest experts, what is causing big aspects of climate change and let's just start to get to doing it. Rather than saying, "is there a problem?," much like in the tobacco situation, "Is there a problem?" The answer is -- yes, there is. So, let's move on and say what are the very best ways to address it. Rather than allowing this veil of uncertainty, the smoking gun of whether it is really caused by this or cause by this, is it 10% more caused by this. I think we should get out of the minutiae and got on to addressing what I think most people accept is a fairly big problem.

On one hand, in this specific case, climate change, FLG is sympathetic. FLG believes there is climate change. Whether we can or should do something about it is another question. (One is a positive question, the other a normative one.)

On the other hand, FLG has a bunch of problems in the abstract. If you aren't confident what the causal mechanisms are, then how does one design the best strategies to stop it? FLG is also uncomfortable with the implication that once expert/elite opinion has reached some sort of consensus, then it's time to start doing. That's a dangerous approach toward the world.

While holding up a too high a burden of proof is one rhetorical strategy, which can be wielded by those who want to resist change, so too can the argument that some people cannot or will not ever be convinced and we should just move on without them.

To take this away from cancer or climate change, look at the problems in the EU. Eurocrats sometimes use a bicycle analogy -- if the process stops, then it will fall over. Yet, for all the elite and expert opinion in its favor, the people have rejected it over and over when asked.

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