Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fantastically Irresponsible

The curious case of Clive on climate brings up the issue of scepticism. He argues that scepticism is essential to science, if not our whole modern secular civilisation, and tut-tuts anyone who tries to shout down his right, nay duty, to quietly raise objections. That has to make any scientist stumble in the midst of even their most passionate rant on the coming climate apocalypse. Oh, yeah: aren't we supposed to be the proud sceptics around here? Seasoned climate-science advocates will respond that the deniers are always trying this trick, and that the anti-evolution Creationist crazies do it as well, and that the evidence is so compelling that this is almost the same as arguing that you have a duty to be sceptical of gravity. Weeellllll, not exactly. The evidence is far from being quite that compelling, and isn't a little scepticism always healthy?

This feels like the real issue: scepticism of climate change is far from healthy in the current political climate. In a little meeting of 15 even-tempered scientists, occasionally raising your hand and saying, "I'm sorry, but I really must object," is entirely reasonable [1]. In a world where millions of dollars, pounds, euros, bones and clams are poured into lobbying against political action, where the climate-change hypothesis is accepted by 97% of expert scientists but only 50% of the general public, and where those expert scientists have been saying, "We have to act NOW" for over 20 years, and the overriding effect is for the anti-climate bankroll to grow -- in such a world, isn't this the wrong time to play your sceptic card? Isn't it just a fantastically irresponsible thing to do?

That was my first reaction when I read Clive James's most explicitly sceptical article: is he really allowed to say this? Can't someone stop him? To become such a respected cultural commentator, don't you have to pass some sort of factual rigorousness test? Can't you lose your "Respected Cultural Commentator" license for peddling slippery arguments that belong on conservative US talk radio and right-wing hack blogs, or come out of the mouths of stooges of those poster boys for capitalist evil, the Koch brothers?

Why didn't someone save him from such folly? What about his old friend Ian McEwan, who, at the same time CJ was digging his intellectual hole, was writing a novel entirely devoted to climate change, and joining the 10:10 project? Didn't it cross his mind, "Forget changing to energy-efficient light bulbs -- I've got to stop Clive!"? At the first sign of trouble, he could have popped over one afternoon for a quiet chat. He could have argued cogently and convincingly with his friend about climate science for 45 minutes, and then drugged him and bound and gagged him and locked him in the closet, for his own sake. Maybe he did, and is wondering to this day how the old bastard escaped. What about his other famous intellectual friends? Julian Barnes phones up to reason with him. Salman Rushdie suggests a vacation together ("Come on Clive, let's go into hiding for a year. I know just the place."). Martin Amis takes him out for a drink while Christopher Hitchens goes around to his flat, and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a tumbler of Scotch in one hand, somehow shimmies up the drainpipe, in through the bathroom window, and pilfers his laptop. James stumbles home late that night to find only the searing 1500-word essay the Hitch dashed off before departing.

At this moment in history it seems natural to consider vocal public scepticism of climate change to be appalling and irresponsible. On reflection, however, that view is insidious. While I took that view, while reading CJ's painful missives to the masses, there was a little memory flashing in my conscience. Incongruous as it might seem, it was a memory of a book I'd once read. In fact, like many books, it was a book I read only because Clive James had introduced me to its author. It presented a different picture of people who tell us to be responsible.

The book was Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. It is a short book, divided into four sections. In the first section a young Jewish writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits his literary hero, and, amidst what looks like the driest possible fictional scenario, a night of surprising drama unfolds. In the second section Zuckerman, trying to get to sleep after his tumultuous evening, recalls some recent troubles. He has written a short story based on a money-grubbing swindling uncle. His father is upset at this public airing of family history, which also plays directly into pernicious Jewish stereotypes. His father goes to a highly respected man in their community, a judge, who, it seems, differs from the father's opinion and writes Zuckerman a long sympathetic letter. The letter begins in a tone of kind understanding, and the judge reminds Zuckerman of how common it is for the artist to suffer at the hands of the ignorant and ill-informed who misunderstand their work. He emphasises the important role of the artist, who must stand apart from ordinary society, and weather their criticism. He adds, though, that this role confers on the artist a great deal of responsibility, and feels compelled to ask Zuckerman a series of questions that he thinks will help the young writer to better understand his work and his vocation. We are then given the list of questions, and the judge's mask of support is immediately whisked away at the first one: "If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?"

The list goes on in the same sententious vein, and the riotous send-up of this conceited old coot of a judge is, following the masterful set-up, a piece of comic genius. I obviously have not done the story justice -- if I could do justice to a Philip Roth story, then right now I too would be pretending not to wait for a Nobel Prize in literature.

The lesson from the story is clear. Ever since I read it, every time I hear someone express a very sensible argument why it is irresponsible for a writer (or anyone else) to state their views, I can't help but put that someone in the same ridiculous box as that pompous pedant of a judge. This story helps me to pop their self-righteous bubble. It's one thing to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, but it's quite another to make a calm 10-minute broadcast on Radio 4.

If Clive James wants to air his opinion, even if it is a wrong-headed opinion on a critically important topic, then he has every right. Maybe he even has a duty. He reminds us that the scientific conclusions on climate change are misunderstood not just by those blinded by stupidity, ideology, or money; the basic workings of science are misunderstood even by some of our most accomplished thinkers. If they don't get it, then we're doing a bad job.

Next: The Hannam Effect.

1. Who am I kidding? In all the years I've worked in science, I've never sat in such a meeting.

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