“Make no mistake. The intellectual polarization in the Age of Trump is widening. Progressives are all in, and intellectual norms and fair dealing are out. Whether it is Michael Mann in climate science or Nancy MacLean in social science or Justin Gillis in the media, the ends justify the means.”
I subscribe to the New York Times because I want to understand opposing views as well as my own in the area of political economy. I like to think that I can argue my opponent’s position better than he or she can argue mine. That’s what you have to do with a politically incorrect conclusion that you are convinced is intellectually correct. (I take my craft seriously ….)
Two articles in yesterday’s Times were particularly disappointing. One was a book review of Nancy MacLean’s very dishonest Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The other was a remarkable article by Justin Gillis analogizing between the science behind the solar eclipse and the science of problematic anthropogenic global warming. (To Gillis, both are equally settled and reliable.)
MacLean’s Democracy in Chains
MacLean argues that James Buchanan of Public Choice fame (and a Nobel Laureate in economics too) was racist and had a secret agenda to overthrow democracy with a despotic capitalist society.
MacLean’s book not only utterly fails to maintain its thesis. It is a rare instance of a credentialed university professor (the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, no less) violating norms of academic discourse by taking quotations out of context, mis-sourcing material, and failing to do basic research essential to her thesis.
Students get bad marks for such errors; to have a professor make elementary (even purposeful) mistakes to hardwire a controversial narrative is inexcusable. And so I read the Times review expecting a professor who was Left but honest to find some (Progressive) middle ground on the very controversial book. Instead, that review, titled “minority Rule,” was by one Heather Boushey, bylined as “executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.”
MacLean could just as well have reviewed her own book for the Times.
Numerous critics (J. Adler, D. Boudreaux, D. Bernstein, B. Doherty, N. Gillespie, S. Horwitz) have documented in detail the book’s tissue of errors, including Duke professors (M. Munger, G. Vanberg) specializing in the very area that MacLean writes about: Public Choice economics.
But it was philosopher Stephen Hicks who really explained the method behind the madness: postmodernism where the author (a la Enron) violates truth and reality to get to a desired end. It goes something like this: use language and arguments that appear to be correct in the belief that getting enough people to agree with it will make it correct.
Nancy MacLean has written a postmodernist book, while her libertarian critics are writing modernist responses.
The critics point out the free-wheeling, fact-free, and conspiracy-tinged narrative MacLean has constructed, and they argue that logically her account does not fit the reality of James Buchanan’s life and writings.
All good and true. Yet MacLean’s project is not about getting the “facts” right or about striving toward historical “truth.” And her fans are entirely unmoved by the criticisms. That’s because her project is an expressive projection of her group’s ideology in a politicized us-versus-them fray.
Rhetoric is a powerful tool in that fray and all of its devices – free association, ad hominem, overstatement, out-of-context quotation, guilt by association, emotionalism – are justified as necessities of the verbal warfare that intellectuals fight.
Justin Gillis: Eclipse Science to Climate Science
For those of us in the climate change debate, postmodernism and Nancy MacLeans are just about everywhere. The science is settled and thus the only real questions are why is there the evil of dissent. There can be no debate so don’t ask Al Gore or Michael Mann or Gavin Schmidt to debate. (On Stossel several years ago, Schmidt refused to engage with Roy Spencer so John interviewed them separately!)
Back to the New York Times print edition of yesterday, August 20, 2017. Justin Gillis’s article. “Should You Trust Climate Science? Maybe the Eclipse Is a Clue” remarkably equates the certain science of solar movement with climate models.
“Thanks to the work of scientists,” he writes, “people will know exactly what time to expect the eclipse.” And so we “respond to scientific predictions all the time, even though we have no independent capacity to verify the calculations. We tend to trust scientists.”
But when it comes to the science of man-made climate change, “we have largely ignored the scientists’ work.”
For years now, atmospheric scientists have been handing us a set of predictions about the likely consequences of our emissions of industrial gases. These forecasts are critically important, because this group of experts sees grave risks to our civilization. And yet, when it comes to reacting to the warnings of climate science, we have done little.
“Why?” Gillis provides the narrative of self-interested evil.
Sheer inertia is one of many reasons…. But a bigger reason is that these changes threaten vested economic interests. Commodity companies benefit from exploiting forests. Fossil-fuel companies, to protect their profits, spent decades throwing up a smoke screen about the risks of climate change. Most of them now say they have stopped funding climate denial, but they still finance the careers of politicians who say they are skeptical of climate science and who play down the risks.
Six Questions for Gillis
If this science is really settled, then tell us about:
- Climate models and predicted warming.
- The magnitude of sulfur dioxide cooling in relation to carbon dioxide warming for the net effect.
- The feedback effects of clouds to enhanced warming.
- The relative strength of natural variability versus the enhanced greenhouse effect.
- Sea level rise fifty or one hundred years ago versus today.
- The likelihood of a (moderated) future Ice Age or Little Ice Age in light of the enhanced greenhouse effect.
And this is just the physical science. There are many other questions about climate economics and public policy that surely would inspire a fair-minded Justin Gillis to want to explore the unsettled science that is there.
Make no mistake. The intellectual polarization in the Age of Trump is widening. Progressives are all in, and intellectual norms and fair dealing are victims. Whether it is Michael Mann in climate science or Nancy MacLean in social science or Justin Gillis in the media, the ends justify the means.