The Intersection

The HuffPost has an amusingly written blog entry by David Roberts, of Grist, over all the new-middle-in-the-climate-debate stuff. Roberts thinks I have allowed myself to be co-opted/duped by those wanting to construct a false equivalence between science abusers on different sides of the issue:

Science journalist Chris Mooney has been researching a book on the connection between hurricanes and climate change. In the course of his research, he’s come across a lot of people in the public press mischaracterizing the science, stating categorically that there is or isn’t such a connection, when the scientific consensus is that it’s just too soon to tell (PDF). This led him to write a post repudiating the dirty hippies and embracing the “non-skeptic heretic” label (with lots of fine-print hedging).

Of course, Mooney didn’t intend primarily to characterize global warming activists as hysterical dirty hippies. He was just trying to make the point that in this area, hurricanes, the science has been abused by everybody. He had his own reasons for playing off the dirty hippies.


But of course, I was naive….

In the Boston Globe, Cathy Young — a contributing editor at Reason magazine, funded by the libertarian Reason Foundation — makes good use of Pielke Jr., Mooney, and Kleiman in a state-of-the-art piece of agit-prop….Mooney and Kleiman both adopt a tone of bemusement, as though Young has innocently misconstrued them. Are they really so naive? Young is following a right-wing script that dates back decades….Unlike Mooney and Kleiman, who got duped, Pielke Jr. knows exactly how the game is played…..

And so forth.

A couple of points here. One, I wrote a book called The Republican War on Science. If anyone can possibly think I’m an equivocator on the subject of who’s worse when it comes to abusing science, then they’re the clueless party. Not me. Given what I’ve said and said exhaustively about the right, I ought to be able to criticize the left once in a while without fear of being misunderstood.

Second, Roberts has a serious point. It is this: Don’t beat up on the environmental groups for minor transgressions, which don’t really matter much, when we all know who the real climate bad guys are. Don’t fall for the journalistic trope of bashing one’s presumed buddies just to get attention. Don’t be contrary just for the sake of being contrary.

I myself have been making this argument for ages, so I’m very familiar with it and very supportive of it. However, there is still a place for constructive criticism of one’s allies, especially on this issue, where I am convinced that misuses of science by “dirty hippies” give the other side ammo unnecessarily, and help the real climate bad guys succeed in framing the debate their way–as a battle over the science.

Remind me again what’s wrong with pointing this out?

P.S.: Please be patient with me today about the posting of comments, I will be trying to fly back across the country and relying upon an air transportation system that is still going through various shocks as a result of the weather…

P.P.S.: Cathy Young, whose article in the Boston Globe touched off a lot of this, has a follow up post about whether she wrongly enlisted me in her column…as far as I’m concerned, she and I are fine, there’s no big issue here. I appreciate her noting my clarification.

Comments

  1. #1 Dark Tent
    January 18, 2007

    Chris, you are in a better position to credibly criticise exaggerations and “fear-mongering” from the left than most of the pundits (Cathy Young, Revkin), bloggers (Roberts) and policy wonks (Pielke) put together, in my opinion.

    You have made it eminently clear (to anyone who has actually read anything that you have written) that there is no equivalence between what the left and right have done on this issue. You certainly owe no one an appology in that regard.

    PS I am glad to see that you are not letting Cathy Young and others put you into a neat little cubbyhole on this one — a strategy that they employ to make themselves appear as the “reasonable” (and Reasoning) ones.

  2. #2 Dark Tent
    January 18, 2007

    By the way, I’d let the “non-skeptical heretic” term die the quiet death it deserves — and be buried in the “Tomb of the Unknown Word”.

    Even using it in a sarcastic or otherwise mocking manner gives it far more air time than it deserves.

    No one (with the possible exception of the one who coined it) has the foggiest notion what (if anything) it means and it is therfore quite useless in any substantive dialogue about global warming.

  3. #3 David Roberts
    January 18, 2007

    Chris, just to be clear, I don’t think you are one of those people who try to build a pundit career out of drawing false equivalence between the “sides” of various debates. Indeed, you’ve done an extraordinary amount — more than just about anyone — to knock down those false comparisons. That makes you a hero in my book.

    The point of the post was just to illustrate a dynamic — to show how easy it is for a perfectly reasonable point on your part to get twisted in service of a piece of propaganda like Young’s column.

    Yes, you clarified that Young mis-used your words — but how many people read your correction compared to how many read Young’s column, which I guarantee is making the rounds of right-wing blogs as we speak?

    Don’t beat up on the environmental groups for minor transgressions, which don’t really matter much, when we all know who the real climate bad guys are. Don’t fall for the journalistic trope of bashing one’s presumed buddies just to get attention. Don’t be contrary just for the sake of being contrary.

    Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better myself. However, the point of my post is that this —

    …misuses of science by “dirty hippies” give the other side ammo unnecessarily…

    — is often stated but rarely substantiated. I mean, the denialists and obfuscators are willing to lie and distort, as Young’s column clearly demonstrates. They’ll bash climate change activists for alarmism even if those activists are absolutely on the scientific straight and narrow. They’re going to do what they’re going to do no matter what we do.

    As I said, where they get their real ammo is from sensible people who bash their dirty hippie buddies. I agree about “constructive criticism,” but given the hoard of nitwits out there combing the internet for support, one should use great care when offering such criticism in a public forum. It’s extremely easy to become a useful tool for people on the side of denial and delay. Nobody’s above the fray.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    January 19, 2007

    David thanks for your post. I appreciate it.

    I disagree with you only about the last part. Valid criticisms stick and get repeated; invalid criticisms get laughed at, lampooned. The problem is that our side has too often, and unnecessarily, left itself open to valid criticisms.

    Also, there’s a limit in terms of the extent to which one can be expected to worry about having one’s comments misused. It’s hard enough to figure out what you want to say, much less then anticipating how others are going to twist it….

  5. #5 Jon Winsor
    January 19, 2007

    Valid criticisms stick and get repeated; invalid criticisms get laughed at, lampooned.

    Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Especially in politics, there are important cases where the press has operated more on myth than truth. Bob Somerby, who congratulated Dave Roberts on his post a few days ago, has argued that the press has sometimes operated more like a rumor mill than it has like a forum for rational discourse. And NYU prof Jay Rosen has said similar things from a more academic point of view. Also, David Brock has argued that structural changes in the way journalism is done, and certain practices in right-leaning journalism, have shaped the narrative that ends up sticking in the public’s mind.

    So anyway, while I agree that you can’t always predict how people are going to twist your words, there are narratives that certain people are interested in advancing. And a tried and true one is that there are these non-respectable extreme greenies out there demogoging everyone. Pushing that narrative has worked well for them…

    So anyway, as far as my two cents goes (which is pretty far from being able to buy you a Starbucks), I would say that a voice advocating scientific accuracy is important and very much needed, but Dave is right that journalists should, if possible, try to avoid playing into their hands…

  6. #6 Steve Reuland
    January 19, 2007

    Valid criticisms stick and get repeated; invalid criticisms get laughed at, lampooned.

    If this were actually the case, then global warming denialism would have ceased to be a view of any real significance years ago. Instead its adherents are as visible and strident as ever. Only when both parties to any given debate are making a sincere attempt at intellectual honesty will the bad arguments get filtered out.

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    January 19, 2007

    You can tell I’m not a journalist or a blogger… The antecedent of “their” in that last sentence is supposed to be the rightie chattering class. Argh. (Maybe I should just stick to lurking…)

  8. #8 Chris Mooney
    January 19, 2007

    I didn’t express myself very well so you guys are right to criticize.

    Sure, all sorts of schlock gets repeated ad nauseum by bone-heads. But, valid criticisms win over intellectually serious folk who, by repeating those criticisms, lend added credibility to them and so forth and so on….

  9. #9 Dark Tent
    January 19, 2007

    By adding just a few words, one can make Chris’ above statement accurate:

    If journalists did their job… valid criticisms would stick and get repeated; invalid criticisms would get laughed at, lampooned.

    But they (journalists) are not … so they (criticisms) don’t.

    I suspect that one of the main problems is that, when it comes to science, at least, many journalists simply do not know the difference between a valid and an invalid criticism.

    So they do what they think is “fair”: they present both criticisms as if they were equal. They figure that if they (the journalist) don’t know which is valid, how are their readers ever going to know either?

    The problem, of course, is that some of their readers are not as stupid as the journalists think they are. In fact, some of their readers are scientists and engineers and actually know far more science than they (the journalists) do.

    So what the journalists are doing is not fair to their readers OR fair to the scientists OR fair to the general public — but it is fairly foolish.

  10. #10 Douglas Watts
    January 20, 2007

    I am convinced that misuses of science by “dirty hippies” give the other side ammo unnecessarily, and help the real climate bad guys succeed in framing the debate their way–as a battle over the science. — C.M., from the post.

    Well said. As a stickler for scientific accuracy, I wince when someone on “my side” utters a demonstrably incorrect piece of information in defense of an issue I have a stake in.

    In the environmental arena, the most precious natural resource is your credibility. And credibility means getting your facts straight. The consequences are so obvious: “Your Honor, if Mr. Watts is wrong on this very basic fact, why should we believe anything else he says?”

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