Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Activism: looking in, looking out (libertarians and climate science)

Originally published at Freedom Democrats in 2009

The main goal of ideological advocacy is expand the influence of a particular ideology among the general public. I define an ideological movement as a group of advocates for an overlapping set of ideologies, who recognize their shared interests. These advocates will frequently look to each other for intellectual and material resources, which aid them in their primary task of expanding the influence of their ideologies. While most of their attention will focus on contrasting their own ideology against others that influence the general public, some of their attention will be focused inwards--evaluating disagreements within the movement.

While there are definitely benefits to some degree of introspection within the movement, I've noticed a tendency for people to go overboard and focus on internal squabbles to the detriment of the original goal of advocacy. There are probably many reasons for such navel-gazing, ranging form a concern with one's own social circle to finding more satisfaction to debating with others who share at least a few common assumptions, but I don't want to get too deep into that speculation. What I want to focus on here is an example of productive introspection, and how a lot of people seemed to miss the point.

Over at the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson wrote an essay called "Libertarians for Junk Science". I thought it was a very well focused and relevant essay. He starts with the premise that there is a scientifically valid risk of man-made climate change, that will cause major harm in at least a few ways. This has long been the mainstream opinion among scientists, and it has finally become the mainstream opinion among the public. Carson takes a faction of libertarians to task for obsessively denying the science here, accusing them of providing a disservice both to science and libertarianism.

Carson's essay is primarily focused inwards, but it can also provide an outsider with greater respect for libertarianism. Carson asserts that climate-change denialism is driven by the fear that the reality of man-made climate change would invalidate libertarianism, then argues that there is no reason for this fear. This point is of immense importance because if the public believes that climate change invalidates libertarianism, then libertarianism is dead. Even if the greenhouse gas effect turns out to be benign, our ability to modify the climate will only increase in the future and we will eventually have to deal with these sorts of issues. Carson provides an explanation for non-libertarians, and asks libertarians to stop framing the issue in a way that discredits liberty.

Unfortunately, his audience (as represented by the comments) seemed to miss the point. One commenter (Schulman) immediately turns to navel-gazing, debating whether Carson is a real libertarian. Another (Kinsella) ignores Carson's critical introspection, apparently interpreting it as an attack on libertarianism and insisting that statists are much more prone to ideology driven pseudoscience than libertarians are. While this is an interesting issue, it is beyond tangential and it wasn't clear that the commenter recognized it.

A final note on the comment thread, is that it was full of standard denialist rhetoric (I've become familiar with it from the evolution/creation debates). The core of this rhetoric was misrepresentation of scientific opinion. Understandably, it is hard for a layman to get a good grasp of the issues, since they don't have the time that a professional has and they are often getting their information second-hand from reporters and activists who don't have a great understanding themselves. One consequence of this misunderstanding is the "magic bullet" refutation -- acting as though one inconsistency is sufficient to demolish a body of theory that has been built by hundreds if not thousands of research projects (and often, that apparent inconsistency has already been addressed). I also got the impression that some commentators have spent more time reading fringe opinions (both for and against climate change legislation) than they have spent reading the opinions of mainstream scientists or policymakers.  They seem unable to distinguish between the ideas of opposing ideological advocates, such as radical environmentalists, and those of the mainstream scientists and technocrats whose ideas form the solid foundation of public debate.

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