Monday, 14 April 2014

Postcard from Delusion

Previously, on The Fictional Aether: I noted the existence of truly clever people who doubt global warming, and made the grandiose claim that I would gently extricate them from their delusions at no risk to their personal pride. I then tabled my favorite example of such a figure, the polymathic critic Clive James, but was so busy praising his incredible oeuvre that I never got around to his actual climate-change opinions. Which leads us to today's thrilling episode…

In 2007 Clive James gave a series of weekly broadcasts for the BBC Radio 4 show, "A Point of View". His very first statement in the very first installment was, "In my household, I'm the last man standing against the belief that global warming is caused by human beings." My devotion was not yet shaken: for the rest of the broadcast he kept safely hidden below several layers of self-deprecation; he must have been playing devil's advocate. But two years later he firmly raised his hand as a climate-change dissenter. He did it while defending the importance of scepticism, and it was almost possible for a life-long devotee such as myself to generously find him a way out, and interpret climate change as just a convenient example of a topic where scepticism was unwelcome. That last part was certainly true, and James was immediately given a drubbing by George Monbiot, who accused him of providing zero evidence for the claim that the number of scientists who were climate-change sceptics was growing (and indeed no names or numbers were given), and attributed his views entirely to being an old fogey.

A few weeks later came the Climate Research Unit scandal that was inevitably dubbed Climategate. James gladly took the opportunity to respond more explicitly, and devoted an entire broadcast to lampooning anyone who made dire predictions about the distant future. If earlier he'd merely put his foot in his mouth, he now leaped on stage and danced a jig with the damn thing still in there. I can understand the reaction: rather than admit you're wrong, it's tempting to come out fighting with the attitude that really you were right. But my gallant efforts at generosity don't hold up: even now, almost five years later, he still takes the chance to insert jibes about climate change into his columns of television criticism [1]. He's also published his Point of View broadcasts in a book, and stands by his views in a postscript to the text of the first broadcast.

I am willing to go a long way to give Clive James the benefit of the doubt, but this is a doubt I cannot trust, and the evidence cannot be denied that he is a serious denier of evidence. And so we drive headlong into a difficult question: what the hell is going on here?

The standard technique to answer a difficult question is to answer an easy question instead. One much easier question would be, "Why does this moron dispute science?" which has the easy answer, "Because he's a moron."

Sorry, but CJ is no moron. He is an extremely intelligent man and a shrewd and careful thinker.

Another attempt to simplify the problem: "He's ignorant; he even admits he knows little about climate science."

Wrong again. Don't be fooled by CJ's disarming "I don't know much about this, but…". He has made a career out of using extensive research in aid of a careful performance of comic ignorance. In one of his best travel documentaries, Clive James in Japan, he bumbled around the country in a haze of seeming misunderstanding. When my high-school Japanese class was shown the video, the teacher could not control herself from repeatedly crying out, "That's not true! That's not true!" while all of the students cried back, "We know! We know! Can't you tell he's joking?" All of the parts that were not obviously jokes were a series of far-from-obvious observations, made apparently by accident. But they were no accident. It is only from his later writings that we discover that for several years he obsessively studied Japanese culture, including learning the language, and his casual Innocent Abroad act was based on enough research to drive any standard documentarian to quit and join the talk-show circuit. He later distilled his knowledge into perhaps his best novel, about a Japanese student's misadventures in London.

Let's try again: "He's a heartless old man who doesn't care about the fate of his grandchildren." James was indignant at this perceived accusation, and rightly so: what do we know of his emotional state? And to further squash the nonsense logic of this common irritating invocation of our benighted descendants: if he doesn't believe that global warming is a serious problem, then presumably he also doesn't believe that his grandchildren face a perilous fate for him to be heartless about. Plus, wherever CJ lives on the ethical spectrum from selfless saint down to genocidal despot, this is irrelevant to the legitimacy of his argument [2].

As a final last-ditch effort, we could always reach for the conspiracy theorists' playbook. Clive is in the pay of the oil industry. He wants the world to burn for humanity's sins. He wants to flood out all the poor people so that his heirs can live in luxury as the court jesters of the one percent. But let's not do that. Let's leave the environmentalist conspiracy theorists to go and fight the right-wing blognuts, and dream that they will annihilate each other.

So. We cannot simply dismiss him, but we can hardly agree with him, either; one clever writer, no matter how well-read, doesn't quite trump thousands of expert scientists. He clearly doesn't see it that way. Why not? Where has he gone wrong? And can he be convinced to change his mind?

The answer to the last question is obviously purely academic, because I seriously doubt that Clive James is one of this blog's 12 readers. But since I am purely an academic, I consider these questions worth thinking about a little more.

Next: Fantastically Irresponsible.

1. Anyone who follows that link may notice that yours truly has inserted a shameless plug for this blog in the comments. My only defense is that using the letters page for self-promotion is a technique I first learned from CJ himself.

2. His claim that Monbiot claimed that he couldn't care less about the future is somewhat exaggerated, but we'll let that pass. I imagine plenty of people did think that, and they deserve a slap over their sloppy reasoning.


  1. Personally, I think the issue is that climate change was embraced by the "environmental movement". People who consider themselves serious-minded and scientific spent a few decades fending off the woo-addled hippies of the "environmental movement". When climate change came around and was adopted by "those people", the elderly serious-minded scientists set out once again to chide those mushy-headed mystics who think Mother Earth is dying. And even though the science came out on the other side this time, they can't quite give up the old fight...

  2. Good point. Just because someone is insufferable, doesn't mean they're wrong.


[Note: comments do not seem to work from Facebook.]