Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Greater Scheme of Things

NRO's Jim Manzi has dared to give aid and comfort to the Warming Cult (and not for the first time, either). Since modern conservatarianism has pretty much dispensed with all emotions but anger and self-pity, Manzi's remarks have naturally been met with a heapin' helpin' of both.

Andy McCarthy has written a response to Manzi, and it's nothing if not illuminating. Loyalty seems to be the main issue: The denialists may be fools, but they're our fools. If you hold them to the same standards you apply to the Left, you lose. And if you lose, you're nobody and nothing.

Then there's the issue of AGW, and whether it's true even though it has no right to be.

As for your dilation on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), I don’t write much about the subject. I haven't taken the time to study it, as you have. But I have read enough to roll my eyes at most of the public debate.
Dude, I can totally relate. I don't know much about accretion-powered pulsars. But I once heard this goddamn egghead say something about 'em, and it wasn't so much what he said as the way he said it, with that smug look people like him get when they say stuff like that to people like me. If I'd gone to some Brainiac School and gotten into this guy's field I probably would've proved him wrong by now. And yet he's lecturing me on accretion-powered pulsars? Fuck that noise. I know plenty about gravity. Hell, I once heaved a 63-2 in the junior college decathlon. I'd like to see Faggy McPulsarson try that.

Anyhow, Manzi's a jerk not just for "dilating" on the subject of his own essay, but also for being comparatively well-informed about it. McCarthy trusts his gut, like all honest men, and his gut informs him that AGW ain't strictly on the level.
From the premise that AGW is undeniable, the alarmist side leaps to the extravagant conclusion that we are therefore capable of, and obliged to, do something meaningful about it.
To put it another way: How can you say that I'm not engaging with the alarmists' arguments, when I've just referred to them as "alarmists"?

The only appropriate response to AGW is to drop "an atom bomb of derision" on anyone who suggests that it could very well be a serious problem. This is so self-evident to McCarthy that one can almost empathize with his pain at having to explain it to a colleague.

Imagine that you've spent years working shoulder to shoulder with a comrade at the agricultural collective, and one fine day he claims that Stalin didn't actually invent the tractor. He's wrong, he's a liar, he's betrayed the Revolution...and yet, you can't help weeping, even as you denounce him to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. For there was a time when you loved him as a brother.

Next, McCarthy describes the AGW debate in terms so simple that even he can understand them. Alarmists say that over time, lots of little things can add up to big things. Skeptics acknowledge this provisionally, while pointing out that they don't care because "denying it makes sense in the greater scheme of things."

And these are the thanks they get:
[T]he alarmists deride the skeptics over their denial as if they were denying something as basic and incontestable as that two plus two equals four.
In reality, they're simply denying that it matters whether 0.0002 and 0.0002 equals 0.0004. That's a whole different thing, as you can tell from all those zeroes.
[T]he skeptics continue denying — even if they are wrong in absolute terms — because they fear alarmists have set the table in such a way that to concede the premise is to concede the draconian remedies alarmists have in mind.
Whether they're absolutely wrong or absolutely right, you have to admit that what they say makes a lot of sense. And isn't that what matters most, when you stop to think about it without thinking about it too much?
I would say that, given our finite capabilities and the shortness of life, AGW may not be a problem at all, and, if it is a problem, it is not urgent enough to obsess over.
McCarthy himself concedes that he doesn't believe this because he's "taken time to study" the science. He believes it because it's the proper thing to believe, even — or especially — if it's "wrong in absolute terms." That, amazingly, is his response to Manzi's claim that people on the Right have been displaying an "unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to [their] own beliefs."

Perhaps because he senses some problem with this line of reasoning, McCarthy quickly retreats to the epistemological bedrock of Islamofascism: There's no point worrying about the climate when we're in "a global war against jihadists whose mass-murder attacks — and their catastrophic costs — are impossible to predict."

Apparently, uncertainty is sometimes a threat, rather than a comfort.

Please don't conclude from all this that McCarthy is an ineducable zealot. As it happens, he can imagine — just barely — a situation in which it would be quite reasonable to take action on AGW. For instance, suppose Modern Science were able to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that:
  1. There's a real problem

  2. It's more dangerous, at this very moment, than Islamic Terror™

  3. It can be solved without doing things of which McCarthy disapproves, like regulating industry

  4. Scientists aren't just making the whole thing up in order to hasten the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

  5. No relevant scientist has any conceivable financial interest in the outcome of the debate
In that case, McCarthy would immediately stop being a skeptic, as long as no other excuses for skepticism had come up in the meantime (e.g., news that a leading climatologist had rented a DVD of Avatar, or dined on arugula).

Please note that this is not evidence of bias: he applies exactly the same standards to skeptical scientists like Richard Lindzen (except for #5, which only applies to anti-capitalist greedheads like Al Gore, natch).

That's fair if anything is, so let's have no more of this alarmist talk about "epistemic closure." After all, it may never happen!


Rmj said...

I do like the reigning paradigm that ignorance is the best defense. "I don't know anything about this subject, but what I've heard on talk radio convinces me I know enough to be an expert anyway!"

I still remember the halcyon post-war years when getting a college degree was practically a gift to the nation, as you would be one of the leaders of the new age of America, the "best and the brightest" who would carry us forward on the expertise of scientists and business leaders and politicians.

Oh, well, I guess Vietnam shredded that optimism, and now we're down to "Don't know much about AGW...and I don't need to!"


Rmj said...

"I would say that, given our finite capabilities and the shortness of life, AGW may not be a problem at all, and, if it is a problem, it is not urgent enough to obsess over."

And wasn't it Keynes who said: "In the long run, we're all dead." And isn't he a liberal icon?

There, AGW anti-denialists! I've run rings 'round you logically, and hoist you on your own petard!