The Intersection

Debating Ron Bailey, Part II

Well, folks, my debate with Ron at the Skeptics Society conference is coming up this Saturday. We did a virtual coin toss today and I won, which means I go first. Whatever else this event will be, it will certainly be illuminating.

The question at the center of the debate, you will recall, is, “Distorting Science: Who’s Worse, The Left or the Right?” Honestly, I’m not sure which way Ron will go on this. Given past comments from him I wouldn’t be surprised if he says, “both” or “impossible to say.” As for my own basic answer: You can probably guess, but the position will be suitably nuanced. (As I know Ron is reading, I won’t say more than that about my own strategy.)

Still, I’d love to hear more from all of you about possible angles to take on this debate. We already had a brief rundown of debating tips here, but I’d like to focus the discussion a bit. Namely, it seems to me that a central question in this debate will be how one defines “worse.” Worse can probably be defined in terms of consequences, or in terms of brazenness/outrageousness–or perhaps both. Clearly, it makes a difference.

More importantly, I’d like feedback on what Ron’s strongest argument might be, either for the “both” position or for the “left is worse” position. What’s the worst leftwing distortion of science? Are we going to hear a lot about nuclear power? GMOs? DDT? Paul Ehrlich and the population bomb?

I am not going to lay out exactly how I plan to approach this debate–that would give too much away–but suffice it to say that at this point in time, I can certainly be influenced in my approach by thoughtful, well-argued comments…

P.S.: In case anyone is interested, format as I understand it will run something like this:

Openers: Mooney 15 minutes; Bailey 15 minutes

Rebuttal: Mooney 10 minutes; Bailey 10 minutes

Closing Statements: Mooney 5 minutes; Bailey 5 minutes

Audience Q & A: 15 minutes


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    May 30, 2006

    Right now? The right.

    A decade or two ago? The left, or at least portions thereof.

    In fact, right now, it’s only portions of the right that are distorting science, but the Republicans have developed this “it’s our guy, defend him” mentality that has dragged a lot fo those who wouldn’t distort science into the big ulgy tent.

    Some of those deconstructionist “science is a social construction of oppressive patriarchal Western society” types are now acting all surprised that some of their language is being subverted by the right for an attack on science. They were attacking science, even sometimes from within the aegis of science, in the name of political ideology for a long time. One possible good side-effect of the Republican war on science is that those on the left will wake up to what it was that they were doing. I don’t think this is such a big deal any more, however. Even some environmentalists are coming around to realize that perhaps nuclear power may end up being necessary in offering some solutions.

    Whenever social ideology gets in front of science — be it homophobia in the name of religious fundamentalism, global warming denial in the name of capitalism, or “all nurture no nature” in the name of combating racism — science suffers.


  2. #2 razib
    May 31, 2006

    What’s the worst leftwing distortion of science? Are we going to hear a lot about nuclear power? GMOs? DDT? Paul Ehrlich and the population bomb?

    application of pure social constructionism to statistical differences between men and women.

    as for deconstructionism, i have a little saying which goes to the effect that leftist tools are often ultimately used toward rightist ends. when it comes to public consumption christian conservative anti-porn activists avoid the language of religious morality in favor of subjegation and degradation of women a la mckinnon. parts of the ID movement have seem post modernism and deconstructionism as good things because they deprivilege rationalistic secularism because of its presumed western bias (i personally hold that rationalistic secularism is not particular to the west but accessible to all of humanity). the most full treatment of the excitement that some christian conservatives take in the coming post modern relativistic age is on display in alistair mcgrath’s the twilight of atheism. mcgrath’s basic position is that atheism is ultimately incompatible with cultural pluralism because of its assertion of an objective and universal truth.

  3. #3 Benjamin Harrison
    May 31, 2006

    Rob’s first two words say it all… if I were to take a neutral or pro-right side on this subject I’d probably take the position that political distortion of science is now as it always has been, and that the present appearance of political leaning is a simple matter of political circumstance (i.e. the right distorts more because its louder, not because it’s less accurate). There are always more examples of distortion from any political side in terms of manipulating science, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to get bogged down in that time of evidence particularly in a debate framed as suggested- where politics has always skewed science.

    Arguing how politics specifically addresses and impacts the process of scientific inquiry for political purposes is another question entirely, and the framing of the debate which works strongest against modern conservatism (i.e. both sides cherry pick and skew science, but one side specifically right now is actively reducing “science” in a significant manner).

    btw… from the little I’ve read on Bailey in the past on the subject of global warming he’s relied a great deal, by his own admission, on John Christy’s work, and it might be good to have at the ready comments on recent criticism of the Spencer and Christy satellite work.

    Good luck, and enjoy yourself. Been warm down here.

  4. #4 FhnuZoag
    May 31, 2006

    I think a possible stance is that the side which distorts science most is the side that is in power. It is easy to be principled and reality-based whilst in opposition, but once you are in power, a variety of agendas and temptations appear that contend with the demands of truthfulness. While the opposition are tempted with the possibility of exaggerating problems and so on, I get the feeling that this effect is smaller than the broad dishonesty required to enforce the status quo.

    On the other hand, there’s a historical perspective. The left is less likely to distort science and facts in general because they were badly stun by the Cold War. That, and the left’s guilt at trying to defend the indefensible with respect to the USSR led to a new leftwing fearful of idealism and the sort of thinking that sacrifices truth for truthiness. The right, in general, haven’t gone through that sort of tranformative experience.

    Ergo, the right are more likely to invoke grand principles of religion, the neocon rhetoric, technological overoptimism, unrealistic free market reliance than the left are to invoke the complementary positions. And that’s why the left distort science less.

  5. #5 TokyoTom
    May 31, 2006

    Chris, allow me to me to expand upon the suggestions I made previously ( and 2006/05/michael_shermer_another_conver.php).

    – Both the left and right have distorted the science, but which distortions have had greater real-world consequences?

    On climate change, distortions have largely come from the right, and are responsible for our frozen climate change policy over the past ten years. This hase been tremendously costly. The distortions of the left have generally been distortions not of science, but of mistaken ecological and economic forecasts (Club of Rome), that failed to take into account how markets and pricing actually work. These mistakes have not been costly (except in the sense that they have also slowed policy responses because they invited the right to respond to serious problems as “scaremongering doomsday diatribes filled with junk science, offering wrongheaded solutions to non-existent problems, and with socialist undertones not at all well-disguised”).

    – who has been “skewing science” and for what reasons/benefit?

    There is an analysis here that I explained earlier that libertarians often make, that I view as perceptive and convincing. Many scientists, environmentalist and policy makers/bureaucrats see problems and want “the government” to fix them. This quite natural, especially with the marked success of the environmental regulation that everyone clamored for in the late 60s/early 70s. Many of these folks often also seem to regard corporation and private as evil or immoral, and call for changes in human nature and tighter regulation of corporations. I agree with the criticism from the right that sometime this rhetoric is way out of hand and fundamentally misunderstand the market failures that are the source of environmental problems.

    Many environmental policy makers (even on the left) will agree with corporations and those on the right who say that our environmental regulations are entirely too burdensome and expensive, and that we could get better results for less money by simply moving to performance-measured rules or by creating “free market” style solution such as the SO2 trading program.

    Libertarians would take this a step further and say that actually the government itself has been a SOURCE of environmental problems, by interfering with private property rights (which allowed land owners to seek damages from trespassers) and by creating liability rules that essentially allowed companies to pollute free of charge or their investors to avoid responsibility through bankruptcy and limited liability corporations. The result has been the development of pollution problems and the painful public tussles (or “rent-seeking”) that have ensued.

    Libertarians like Ron see the solutions recommended by environmentalists as simply leading to more and more government regulation and bureaucracy, are appalled by the economic naivety of many enviromnentalists and find much environmentla rhetoric distasteful.

    While some libertarian criticism is fair, unfortunately has been rather reflexive itself, and tends to ignore both the actual market failures that lead to environmental problems and the fact that government HAS turned into a rent-seeking game, where only to bash the environmentalists leaves the field to the special interests that are able to purchase the results they want. This phenomenon has become increasing ly apparent and rampant under the Bush administration, but it has been well underway for a long time. Libertarians who are honest will acknowledge how this rent-seeking is running out of control (not only in the environment); see the piece by John Baden (the mind behind the Sagebrush rebellion) that I cited earlier. Here are some choice quotes:

    “Unfortunately, the Republican Party no longer has a cadre of ethically sensitive policy analysts to admonish those who manipulate power and disadvantage others to benefit clients.

    While 200-plus members of Congress took Abramoff’s money, this really is a Republican scandal. Abramoff seduced important Republican congressmen, their top aides, and even a few conservative activists. These scandals show Washington’s engine of plunder with Republicans manipulating the controls.

    This is atrocious for many reasons, but here are two. First, Republican politicians’ hypocrisy betrays professed principles. Second, their actions benefit the most venal, opportunistic, and well off. David Brooks of the New York Times nailed it: “When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it’s a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.”

    Yes, Congressional decisions increasingly allocate wealth and preferential opportunities. …

    Republican commitments to limited government were eroded by the opportunity to transfer wealth to clients and constituencies. It’s that simple — and that sordid.”

    I think you can easily hammer Ron and the right on the fact that the right has failed to avail itself of many opportunities to provide meaningful, market-friendly solutions to enviromental “tragedy of the commons” problems, but has instead fallen into the trap of defending the status quo, which greatly benefits established special interests, to the private gain of politicians, political parties and influence-peddlers.



  6. #6 SLC
    May 31, 2006

    On page 17 of the A section of todays’ Washington Post, there is yet another example of political interference by the administration in a scientific question. The issue is the question of protecting salmon in the Klamath River. The administration has muzzled the scientists on the spot in favor of political appointees at NOAA headquarters.

  7. #7 Barry
    May 31, 2006

    I’d start with not accepting anything that Bailey says. He’s going to pull out libertarianism. He’ll throw out twin delusions that (1) everything would be better if left to ‘the market’, and (2) that such a system would not be heavily gamed by forces who preach a free market, but lobby for government intervention whenever it’d benefit them. He might also pull out lie #3, that the right is more in favor of free markets.

  8. #8 Barry
    May 31, 2006

    Razib: “application of pure social constructionism to statistical differences between men and women.”

    Easy to counter – the junk science book ‘The Bell Curve’ was (and is) popular on the right.

  9. #9 Jon Winsor
    May 31, 2006

    I’d like feedback on what Ron’s strongest argument might be, either for the “both” position or for the “left is worse” position.

    One argument I’ve heard those on the right make is that left-leaning advocacy groups depend on hysteria to boost their causes. The argument goes that in order to maintain their membership and their funding, they need to overstate dangers, so that overstatement becomes a structural necessity of the movement. With book titles like “ECOSCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse”, it seems likely that Bailey is going to make this kind of argument (and a quick Search Inside the Book at Amazon for ECOSCAM finds examples of this argument). My comeback would be the sheer volume of funding and “expertise” available to the right puts their efforts in a different class…

  10. #10 razib
    May 31, 2006

    Easy to counter – the junk science book ‘The Bell Curve’ was (and is) popular on the right

    no, assertion doesn’t make it so. look at how red state ops treat someone who engages the bell curve. steve berlin johnson, who has written for the nation is a pretty standard liberal, defended larry summers, but that doesn’t make him typical for a liberal.

  11. #11 laurence jewett
    May 31, 2006

    It was asked above “Are we going to hear a lot about nuclear power?”

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d MUCH rather hear about “nukular” power — and at great length (particularly if the the number of times the word is uttered is proportional to the length of the discussion).

  12. #12 laurence jewett
    May 31, 2006

    CM: “I’m not sure which way Ron will go on this”

    After the recent drubbing CEI received for their “CO2 is life ad” and the way Bailey’s initial comments about the CEI ad were received, I’d say you can probably be certain of at least one thing:

    Whatever direction Bailey goes in on global warming, it probably won’t be in CEI’s direction (not even in the same quadrant on the compass).

  13. #13 jackd
    May 31, 2006

    Don’t forget the way the way the administration lied about the air quality in Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 2001. How much worse could “distortion” be?

  14. #14 Jon Winsor
    May 31, 2006

    By the way, related to my comment above, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baily referenced Al Gore’s comment in a recent Grist interview:

    The right has been pulling this out of context and making hay with it lately, so you might want to be ready to set them straight (as David Roberts does in this post).

  15. #15 hardindr
    May 31, 2006

    I think you will hear a fair amount of “environmentalists are trying to scare people talk,” if not from Bailey, then definitely from Stossell (think Alar here and here). I would also expect some “environmentalists are luddites and want to end modern society” talk.

  16. #16 Dylan Otto Krider
    May 31, 2006

    I’d have to say what is unique is the total disregard for the real world: policy, science… it is no accident that when discussing possible military action in Iran, this administration said that it had learned from some of the “political” mistakes in Iraq. Things never don’t work, and are never bad policy, they are only sold badly. If they did it, it was the right thing to do. How they came up with these hair-brained schemes seems to be determined entirely in think-tank type group think, where a bunch of smart people decide how the world should be, rather than the way it really is.

    What evidence do they have for their claims? To ask such a question misses the point. If global warming is occurring, it might lead to higher regulation, therefore it is not occurring. Christians vote, therefore Darwin was wrong. The beef industry gave to my campaign, therefore there is no such thing as Mad Cow.

  17. #17 Chris Mooney
    June 1, 2006

    Thank you all for your comments. Going to take all of this into account as I prepare today, and I may well pose more refined questions.

  18. #18 Jon Winsor
    June 1, 2006

    Perhaps Lindzen’s recent list of complaints against the science establishment could be an indicator of things Bailey might say?

  19. #19 Laurence jewett
    June 1, 2006

    It’s not your detailed data on this and that subject that will matter most.

    It’s how you frame the question — and consequent debate.

    If Bailey tries to frame the debate by saying “both sides distort the truth equally”, simply ask have him to prove it.

    Proving equality is much (infinitely?) more difficult than proving inequality, no matter which criterion you use as a measurement.

  20. #20 Barry
    June 1, 2006

    Razib, one data point doesn’t make a trend. I remember when the book came out, how it was discussed on AM radio.

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