Friday, July 3, 2015

The Benedict Option

The Obergefell ruling by a 5-4 Supreme Court has a lot of conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, wondering what can be done to rescue a culture that seems determined to cut itself loose from every philosophical and theological anchor and become completely unmoored. Some think that, short of miraculous intervention, there's nothing that can be done to reverse what has transitioned from a drift in the direction of sexual antinomianism to a headlong rush toward its total embrace. Others think that resistance is possible. An example of the former is journalist Rod Dreher, who advocates what he calls the Benedict Option. An example of the latter is Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.

This post features a recent column by Dreher and will be followed tomorrow by a look at what George has to say. Both men offer some very provocative thoughts on how to respond to the current state of our cultural collapse.

Here's Dreher:
No, the sky is not falling — not yet, anyway — but with the Supreme Court ruling constitutionalizing same-sex marriage, the ground under our feet has shifted tectonically. It is hard to overstate the significance of the Obergefell decision — and the seriousness of the challenges it presents to orthodox Christians and other social conservatives. Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now.
I think he's right about that last sentence. Placing our hope in politicians of either party seems futile at this point. Few Republican presidential candidates and legislative leaders seem inclined to do much to stem the current collapse, and most Democrats are actually cheering it on.
Discerning the meaning of the present moment requires sobriety, precisely because its radicalism requires of conservatives a realistic sense of how weak our position is in post-Christian America. The alarm that the four dissenting justices sounded in their minority opinions is chilling. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were particularly scathing in pointing out the philosophical and historical groundlessness of the majority’s opinion. Justice Scalia even called the decision “a threat to democracy,” and denounced it, shockingly, in the language of revolution.

It is now clear that for this Court, extremism in the pursuit of the Sexual Revolution’s goals is no vice. True, the majority opinion nodded and smiled in the direction of the First Amendment, in an attempt to calm the fears of those worried about religious liberty. But when a Supreme Court majority is willing to invent rights out of nothing, it is impossible to have faith that the First Amendment will offer any but the barest protection to religious dissenters from gay rights orthodoxy.

Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito explicitly warned religious traditionalists that this decision leaves them vulnerable. Alito warns that Obergefell “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” and will be used to oppress the faithful “by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”
I'm not a Supreme Court historian, but I can't remember language like this ever being used by the minority to describe a majority SCOTUS ruling. If these Justices are correct, and I fear they are, where do we go from here? Dreher says that first we have to recognize three relatively new realities:
For one, we have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist. To be frank, the court majority may impose on the rest of the nation a view widely shared by elites, but it is also a view shared by a majority of Americans. There will be no widespread popular resistance to Obergefell. This is the new normal.
The culture, though perhaps still nominally Christian, is in fact neo-pagan. That is, it has adopted for all practical purposes an unreflective pagan morality of "to each his own" without really thinking hard about the consequences of that principle.
For another, LGBT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives. The Supreme Court has now, in constitutional doctrine, said that homosexuality is equivalent to race. The next goal of activists will be a long-term campaign to remove tax-exempt status from dissenting religious institutions. The more immediate goal will be the shunning and persecution of dissenters within civil society. After today, all religious conservatives are Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla who was chased out of that company for supporting California’s Proposition 8.
The concern is this: It's no longer a matter of being asked to simply tolerate lifestyle choices one disagrees with. It's that disagreement is now deemed bigotry and will soon be regarded as hate speech. Those who dissent can expect to be the target of vicious verbal attacks and economic punishments. The LGBT community, or at least the more virulent members of it, will demand complete acquiescence and acceptance and they'll be abetted in this effort by compliant judges.
Third, the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages. Besides, if marriage can be redefined according to what we desire — that is, if there is no essential nature to marriage, or to gender — then there are no boundaries on marriage. Marriage inevitably loses its power.
Long time readers will recall that we've been making the argument here for over ten years that if the gender of the people in a union no longer matters there's no non-arbitrary basis for insisting that the number of people in the union matters. The door is now wide open for the legalization of any arrangement any group of people wishes to call marriage and is willing to push through the courts. If five men, or five women, or three men and one woman wish to call their relationship a marriage, there's no longer any rationale for denying them the right to do so. This, of course, means that marriage is no longer a meaningful institution.
This is profoundly incompatible with orthodox Christianity. But this is the world we live in today. One can certainly understand the joy that LGBT Americans and their supporters feel today. But orthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us. We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution. And we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities.

It is time for what I call the Benedict Option [after] Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray.... Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries, and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization. I believe that orthodox Christians today are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions? I don’t know. But we had better figure this out together, and soon, while there is time.

This isn’t the view of wild-eyed prophets wearing animal skins and shouting in the desert. It is the view of four Supreme Court justices, in effect declaring from the bench the decline and fall of the traditional American social, political, and legal order.
Dreher is suggesting a kind of retreat into a pseudo-monasticism to preserve the flame of a Christian heritage that the mindless, hedonistic neo-paganism of the last three decades is trying so hard to extinguish.

He might be right that the situation really is that dire, but perhaps not. Tomorrow we'll look at a different proposal from Robert George.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Plan B

Politico has an interesting piece on the military options available should the nuclear talks with Iran break down completely. You'll have to pardon my cynicism but a) I'm inclined to think that the Politico story was encouraged by the White House in order to try to scare the Iranians into not demanding our complete and utter capitulation to their demands, b ) I don't see this president allowing those talks to fail even if it means ceding to Iran everything between D.C. and Los Angeles, and c) I can't imagine him resorting to these options if those talks do fail.

In any case, here are some of the salient points of the article:
President Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran may yet fail. On Tuesday, exactly one week before a June 30 deadline for an agreement, Iran’s Supreme Leader delivered his latest in a series of defiant statements, setting conditions for a deal—including immediate relief from sanctions, before Iran has taken steps to limit its nuclear program—that Obama will never accept. Secretary of State John Kerry warned last week that the U.S. is prepared to walk away from the talks. And even if a deal is reached, the story is not over. The Iranians may break or cheat on an agreement, and try build a nuclear weapon anyway.

That’s why, at least three times in the past year, a B-2 stealth bomber has taken off from an Air Force base in Missouri and headed west to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. For these missions, the $2 billion plane was outfitted with one of the world’s largest bombs. It is a cylinder of special high-performance steel, 20 feet long and weighing 15 tons. When dropped from an altitude likely above 20,000 feet, the bomb would have approached supersonic speed before striking a mock target in the desert, smashing through rock and burrowing deep into the ground before its 6,000 pounds of high explosives detonated with devastating force.

“It boggles the mind,” says one former Pentagon official who has watched video of the tests.

Those flights were, in effect, trial runs for the attack on Iran that President Barack Obama, or his successor, may order if diplomacy can’t prevent Iran from trying to build a nuclear weapon. Think of it as Plan B for Iran. The failure of diplomacy might lead the U.S. to turn to a weapon finally ready for real-world action after years of design and testing. The so-called “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” or MOP, represents decades of military research, dramatically accelerated in recent years, focused on the problem of destroying targets buried deep underground.
                                 Massive Ordnance Penetrator

I've stated on numerous occasions on Viewpoint and elsewhere that I believe an attack on Iran would be the second most calamitous course the United States could pursue. The only thing worse would be to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. An attack on Iran may be the prelude to Armageddon. Allowing them to have nuclear devices almost surely will be. It would almost certainly precipitate an arms race in the Middle East and almost certainly result in a nuclear attack on Israel. After a lot of interesting discussion of the development of MOP the Politico article continues:
Imagine that the nuclear talks do collapse. Iran’s Supreme Leader insists that outsiders will never be allowed onto Iranian military bases to conduct spot inspections. John Kerry throws up his hands and flies back to Washington. President Obama issues a grave statement expressing his hope that peace is still possible. Perhaps Iran then begins accelerating its uranium enrichment at Fordow and Natanz, and intelligence reports suggest that Tehran has decided to try and build a bomb faster than the world can mobilize to prevent it. Or perhaps Obama is succeeded in 2017 by a Republican hawk who decides it's time to end the uncertainty about Iran’s program once and for all....

If the order came from the White House, it would most likely summon Whiteman Air Force Base to action. Crews there would load the internal weapons bays of several B-2 bombers with MOPs. The giant stealth planes would then depart for their nearly 7,000-mile flight to mountainous western Iran. By the time the planes actually took off, the mission would likely be old hat to the pilots: A massive flight simulator at Whiteman includes a full-size replica of a B-2 cockpit mounted on hydraulics to mimic flight motion. Its realistic wraparound cockpit computer screen can be preloaded with highly detailed graphics showing the topography and target areas the flight crew would see during the flight, allowing them to practice the bomb run—or even the entire flight—under different weather conditions or times of day.

Once over Fordow at an altitude of 20,000 feet or more, the bombers would release their massive payload. As the enormous bombs fell, they would accelerate to phenomenal speeds of perhaps 700 miles per hour or more. Guided by satellite positioning, flexible tailfins would steer the MOP to a very precise impact point likely identified by the UFAC. The bomb would strike the rock with the tip of its sharply pointed nose. Its supremely reinforced casing would protect the fuse and explosives inside from the initial impact. In effect, a 15-ton, 20-foot nail would pound into the earth at the speed of sound.

Violent as that impact may be, it would hardly be enough to get the job done. The goal is for the MOP to drill dozens or even hundreds of feet through rock before exploding. That is made possible by smart fuses, whose blasts are triggered not by impact but by conditions like time, depth, or the presence of a void indicating that the bomb has broken through an interior ceiling.

Fordow is buried deep enough that a single MOP probably would not penetrate to the centrifuge hall deep inside. That’s why several bombers would likely drop their ordnance in succession, gradually smashing a tunnel of devastation towards mountain’s soft interior. GPS precision would enable several MOPS to be landed on virtually the exact same spot in rapid succession: the most powerful jackhammer in history. “You create a hole and then you drop another one down the hole,” says Long. Ideally, one of the MOPs would break through to the centrifuge hall and completely destroy it. But even short of a bulls-eye, multiple concussions could damage the delicate centrifuge cascades, or even collapse the interior chamber. “Several hitting in the same spot could probably defeat the facility,” Long says.
Let's hope (and pray) this scenario never comes to pass, but let's also hope that if it's the only way to prevent Iran from achieving its ambition to develop nuclear weapons that whoever is the president will have the courage to do what's necessary to prevent what would surely be the first step to nuclear holocaust.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Panic Mode

Kevin Williamson unloads both barrels (can I still say that?) at progressivism and its Democratic party epigones in a scathing but on-the-mark piece at National Review. Progressives, Williamson avers, are in full panic mode and the proof of it is their strangely irrational reactions to the events of the day.

Why the panic? Because once the current president has betaken himself to the world's golf courses and his lovely wife no longer junkets around the globe on the taxpayers' tab, adding tonnages of CO2 to the atmosphere, there's a good chance that the left will find itself in the political equivalent of cryogenic mummification with a whole lot of institutional and cultural destruction left unwrought. Indeed, the decisions of the Supreme Court this past week have been cause for much rejoicing on the left, but the Obamacare decision can be neutered by a Republican president, as can the Disparate Impact decision (perhaps a worse decision even than King v. Burwell).

The Same Sex Marriage ruling will not be overturned without a very unlikely constitutional amendment, but if a Republican congress passes a First Amendment Defense Act and a republican president signs it some of the sting can be taken out. The real problem with Same Sex Marriage would then be the long-term impact it will have on laws prohibiting polyamory and incest. Justice Roberts was right, on this issue at least, when he expressed this concern.

The left seems to sense all this, Williamson believes, and thus in the midst of the general jollity he discerns apprehension and angst. Here's his lede.
If it seems to you that the Left has, collectively, lost its ... mind as the curtain rises on the last act of the Obama administration, you are not imagining things. Barack Obama has been extraordinarily successful in his desire to — what was that phrase? — fundamentally transform the country, but the metamorphosis is nonetheless a good deal less than his congregation wanted and expected. We may have gone from being up to our knees in welfare-statism to being up to our hips in it, and from having a bushel of banana-republic corruption and incompetence to having a bushel and a peck of it, but the United States of America remains, to the Left’s dismay, plainly recognizable as herself beneath the muck. Ergo, madness and rage.

We have seen an extraordinary outburst of genuine extremism — and genuine authoritarianism — in the past several months, and it will no doubt grow more intense as we approach the constitutional dethroning of the mock messiah to whom our progressive friends literally sang hymns of praise and swore oaths of allegiance. (“I pledge to be a servant to our president” — recall all that sieg heil creepiness.)

There is an unmistakable stink of desperation about this, as though the Left intuits what the Right dares not hope: that the coming few months may in fact see progressivism’s cultural high-water mark for this generation. If there is desperation, it probably is because the Left is starting to suspect that the permanent Democratic majority it keeps promising itself may yet fail to materialize. The Democrats won two resounding White House victories but can hardly win a majority in a state legislature (seven out of ten today are Republican-controlled) or a governorship (the Democrats are down to 18) to save their lives, while Republicans are holding their strongest position in Congress since the days of Herbert Hoover.

The Democrats have calculated that their best bet in 2016 is Hillary Rodham Clinton, that tragic bag of appetites who couldn’t close the deal in the primary last time around. “Vote for me, I’m a lady” isn’t what they thought it was: Wendy Davis, running for governor of Texas, made all the proper ceremonial incantations and appeared in heroic postures on all the right magazine covers, but finished in the 30s on Election Day. With young people trending pro-life, that old black magic ain’t what it used to be.
The rest of the piece, especially his treatment of the Confederate flag contretemps is very much worth reading. Here's how he concludes:
Young people who have heard all their lives that the Republican party and the conservative movement are for old white men — young people who may not be quite old enough to remember Democrats’ boasting of their “double-Bubba” ticket in 1992, pairing the protégé of one Southern segregationist with the son of another — see before them Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Carly Fiorina, Tim Scott, Mia Love, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Elise Stefanik (and Ted Cruz).

None of those men and women is bawling about “microaggressions” or dreaming up new sexless pronouns. None belongs to the party that hoisted Dixie over the capitol in South Carolina either. Governor Haley may be sensitive to the history of her state, but she is a member of the party of Lincoln with family roots in Punjab — it isn’t her flag. What’s going to happen between now and November 8 of next year will be a political campaign on one side of the aisle only. On the other side, it’s going to be something between a temper tantrum and a panic attack. That’s excellent news if you’re Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or Carly Fiorina. It’s less good news if you live in Baltimore or Philadelphia.
In other words, the choice in 2016 will be between perhaps the most ethnically diverse menu of candidates in American history, a menu that features bright, young black and white GOP men and women, and two old, superannuated socialist war-horses in Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders, though, is at least not corrupt and stands for something besides his own self-aggrandizement.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Call for a New New Atheism

Patrick O'Connor is an atheist who offers a critique of current iterations of atheism at The Business Insider. The crux of his essay is that New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Alex Rosenberg, et al. are presenting a form of atheism that does not address the existential needs of modern people, and O'Connor thinks this risks rendering atheism irrelevant in contemporary society. He writes:
Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life.

In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself.

Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole . The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.
This is true enough for the simple reason that atheism as such has no response to give that would satisfy these yearnings, nor could it produce one. O'Connor finds Dawkins unduly bleak as in this well-known passage:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
But Dawkins is hardly the only atheist who recognizes the dark implications of atheism. Listen to Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg:
[T]he worldview of science [i.e. atheism] is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, .... we even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
And 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who lived and wrote two generations before the new atheists came on the scene, is no more upbeat:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
Quotes from famous atheists read as though they were surreptitiously inserted into the larger culture by prozac manufacturers to enhance the sale of their product. O'Connor, though, continues, determined to persuade his fellow atheists to be more optimistic about the benefits of atheism:
Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history. When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.
Precisely so, if we ignore the swipe at capitalism and ignore, too, that the wars of the 20th century which costs millions of lives were instigated by atheists in states some of which were officially atheistic. But setting that aside, why would anyone call upon someone for a meaningful ethical alternative to the evils of the modern world whose worldview undercuts the possibility of any meaningful morality at all?
In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.
O'Connor just doesn't seem to realize that atheism lacks the resources to address any of these issues. There's simply no basis on atheism for saying that anyone ought to act against his or her own self-interest.

His essay takes a stunning turn when he advocates that atheism abandon humanistic values and embrace the thinking of Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre:
Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe. There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.
Okay, but if you want a lodestar by which to guide your ethics in the modern world, embracing a man who praises cruelty (Nietzsche) and a man who insists upon the meaninglessness of human existence (Sartre) is going to have a lot of people wondering how this is any better than the empty hopelessness offered by Weinberg and Dawkins.

Here's a sample of Nietzsche: “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [....] Without cruelty there is no festival.”

And here's Sartre in a nutshell: "Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal."

The unpleasant truth is that if atheism is true then, as many atheists themselves tells us, it's also true that there is no good reason to think that human beings have free-will, a self (or soul), dignity, or a meaning for their existence. Nor is there any reason to think that there's a basis for human rights, hope, a belief in consciousness, ultimate justice, or objective moral duties.

In other words there's not much there to offer people looking to satisfy the existential emptiness of life in a post-Christian world. O'Connor's call for an atheism that gives answers is like a call for cool water in the desert. It's just not in the nature of thing to provide what's being asked of it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Follow-up to Friday's Post

A friend and I have had some back and forth over Friday's post (Lukewarmism) on the article by Matt Ridley which critiques attempts to convince the world that global warming is not only real and anthropogenic but also that it's dangerous. Ridley thinks that those insisting that it's dangerous not only exaggerate what we know, but are relying on questionable methodology and, in some cases, repression of evidence and contrary interpretations. My friend disagrees. As part of our exchange I wrote this:
In any case, my purpose in doing a post on this wasn't to challenge the reality of global warming but rather to discourage the credulity with which we seem to be accepting the most dire pronouncements of scientists rather than doing ourselves what scientists and others should be doing which is trying to falsify the claims that the IPCC and others are making.

That's what good science (and a good citizenry) does. Someone reports a finding in a paper and other researchers calmly and objectively try to duplicate the reported results, or to pick apart the original methodology, or otherwise show that the work doesn't withstand scrutiny. If the reported findings do hold up to the best efforts to falsify or refute them then they become part of accepted scientific thinking, at least tentatively.

Unfortunately, we've abandoned the traditional methodology and replaced it with ideological confirmation. Claims are now to be accepted uncritically and doubt is to be prohibited if the claim conforms to ideological fashion and fits our preconceptions.

Fashion and popular opinion should have no influence on our intellectual judgments, but we've not only allowed these factors to sway us, we've allowed it to the point where anyone who seeks to exercise the proper sort of skepticism is considered a crank, and some even demand that the person who's seeking to ascertain whether the emperor really is clothed be thrown in jail to shut him up. We've become a society that lurches from one hysterical reaction to another - e.g. We rush to take the confederate flag out of stores, even out of Gettysburg NP(!), while leaving swastikas unmolested - rather than doing the hard work of rationally and objectively challenging and probing what we're being told by the scientific establishment for inconsistencies, errors, and fraud.

In the late sixties, a biologist by the name of Paul Ehrlich wrote a book titled The Population Bomb in which he predicted that the earth would run out of food and other natural resources by the 1990s, and the apocalypse would be upon us. Like so many similar prognostications it never happened, and the lesson we should take from past experiences such as this is that it's appropriate to be skeptical of such forecasts until we have very good reason to trust the research and the researchers. Ridley's article, which formed the basis of Friday's Viewpoint, suggests that in the climate change controversy we're not there yet.
Maybe the alarmists are right and we are headed for eco-catastrophe, but we shouldn't assume they're right just because they're scientists, and since so much is at stake we should be sure that what they're telling us is supported by facts and is not just a product of self-interested motivation or sloppy professional practice. On the matter of climate change the motivations and procedures of at least some proponents still seem open to question.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Marketplace of Ideas

When it comes to hypocrisy and muddled reasoning it's often hard to top the progressive left. Consider John Micek, op-ed editor of the Pennsylvania newspaper the Harrisburg Patriot-News, who immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell ruling on Friday, declared that no op-eds or letters to the editor critical of same-sex marriage would henceforth be permitted.

Mr. Micek's reasoning, if such it could be called, was stunning.
As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will very strictly limit op-Eds [sic] and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage. These unions are now the law of the land. And we will not publish such letters and op-Eds [sic] any more than we would publish those that are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic.
The comparison is bogus, of course. Mr. Micek assumes that opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of bigotry, like racism, but this is like saying that people who oppose, say, the establishment of a tavern in their neighborhood are motivated by hatred against the people, perhaps including their own family members, who'd patronize it. Just as there may be very good reasons to oppose the tavern, there may be very good reasons to oppose gay marriage, but a plurality of one lawyer on the Court has said that gay marriage is now legal, and for folks like Mr. Micek its new-found legality has closed the debate over whether it should be legal.

To see the hypocrisy of the Patriot-News' policy, though, simply note that the Court also made abortion on demand the "law of the land" in 1973. Does the Patriot-News censor op-eds and letters which dissent from the current abortion regime? Moreover, the Court has made it the "law of the land" that it's legal to view pornography, to own firearms, and for corporations to make large contributions to political figures. Does the Patriot-News prohibit objections to these activities from appearing in its pages? If not, why carve out an exception for gay marriage? Where, exactly, does Mr. Micek draw the line between what's suitable for discussion and what's not?

Liberal/progressive/leftists consider freedom to express one's opinions a very dangerous thing. Dissent, disagreement, and freedom are intolerable because they impede social progress, as the liberal defines progress, and their knee-jerk reaction to it is to suppress it everywhere they can. Mr. Micek affords us a fine example of the mind-set.

Update: Micek has since tried to backtrack from his initial comments, which have apparently created a national firestorm, but he hasn't rescinded the policy.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Lukewarmism

Matt Ridley, zoologist, science journalist, member of the British House of Lords has a brilliant piece at The Quadrant Online in which he dissects the current climate change debate. The picture he paints is not pretty, but it's crucially important. In his article he discusses the poor science, fraud, gestapo tactics, grubby motivations, and sheer incompetence of many prominent climate change alarmists.

Ridley himself was once a believer in warming, but disillusioned by so much of what he saw close-up in the climate-change community he has partly left the faith. Here's his explanation:
[T]he great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.

This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses.
Ridley now describes himself as a "lukewarmer:"
These scientists and their guardians of the flame repeatedly insist that there are only two ways of thinking about climate change—that it’s real, man-made and dangerous (the right way), or that it’s not happening (the wrong way). But this is a false dichotomy. There is a third possibility: that it’s real, partly man-made and not dangerous. This is the “lukewarmer” school, and I am happy to put myself in this category. Lukewarmers do not think dangerous climate change is impossible; but they think it is unlikely.

I find that very few people even know of this. Most ordinary people who do not follow climate debates assume that either it’s not happening or it’s dangerous. This suits those with vested interests in renewable energy, since it implies that the only way you would be against their boondoggles is if you “didn’t believe” in climate change.
There's much more at the link. His catalog of scandals among climate-change promoters, his comparison of the treatment of those who dare commit climate-change heresy with the way Islamists treat "heretics," and the egregiously sloppy science that underlies much of the popular discourse on climate-change are well-worth reading. Here's a good example to conclude with. Ridley begins it by citing some recent claims by politicians about the threat of global climate change:
“Doubt has been eliminated,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and UN Special Representative on Climate Change, in a speech in 2007: “It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.” John Kerry says we have no time for a meeting of the flat-earth society. Barack Obama says that 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate change is “real, man-made and dangerous”. That’s just a lie (or a very ignorant remark): as I point out above, there is no consensus that it’s dangerous.

So where’s the outrage from scientists at this presidential distortion? It’s worse than that, actually. The 97 per cent figure is derived from two pieces of pseudoscience that would have embarrassed a homeopath. The first was a poll that found that 97 per cent of just seventy-nine scientists thought climate change was man-made—not that it was dangerous. A more recent poll of 1854 members of the American Meteorological Society found the true number is 52 per cent.

The second source of the 97 per cent number was a survey of scientific papers, which has now been comprehensively demolished by Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University, who is probably the world’s leading climate economist. As the Australian blogger Joanne Nova summarised Tol’s findings, John Cook of the University of Queensland and his team used an unrepresentative sample, left out much useful data, used biased observers who disagreed with the authors of the papers they were classifying nearly two-thirds of the time, and collected and analysed the data in such a way as to allow the authors to adjust their preliminary conclusions as they went along, a scientific no-no if ever there was one.

The data could not be replicated, and Cook himself threatened legal action to hide them. Yet neither the journal nor the university where Cook works has retracted the paper, and the scientific establishment refuses to stop citing it, let alone blow the whistle on it. Its conclusion is too useful.
No wonder Ridley fears for the reputation of science.