Let’s get all meta about climate change!

February 19, 2010

Reams and reams and reams and reams of words representing thoughts have been spewed out onto the internet and the print media over the last month on the subject of climate change, the IPCC, and how scientists have been simply dreadful. Talking about that would be fairly pointless, as everything I could possibly say has been covered elsewhere by people far more knowledgeable than I am. So if you’re hoping to be able to respond with a carefully reasoned synopsis of something you read on wattsupwiththat, you’ll only make yourself look stupid. Well, stupider than normal.

Naturally, the last sentence is rather pejorative and clearly reveals my leanings. But what I think about the subject is rather incidental to the point of this post, which will only be revealed through a series of over-elaborate metaphors designed to make it look like I can actually write and also make it look like I really understand complex philosophical arguments. None of this may actually be the case, which is a sentence which should be inserted before almost every single post on this subject.

Why is what I think incidental to the debate? Firstly, calling it a debate is questionable; it implies this can be resolved with rational argument. Moreover, to do so gives credence to the notion that this is something new, rather than a rehash of an ancient theme which has, to a large degree, dominated philosophical discourse for the last two and a half millenia.

It’s the conflict between episteme and doxa; the conflict between knowledge based on reason and opinion based on unanalysed experience. Of course, in the current age there’s no such thing as unanalysed experience; rather we have knowledge based on different structures of reason, some of which are much closer to the ground than others.

What we’re seeing in the climate change debate is something simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. We’re seeing the once lonesome shining tower of science being gradually surrounded by millions of individual structures of knowledge, rapidly pushing their way into the sky. This has been enabled by the rapid expansion of access to information that the internet has permitted; while once the requirements of accessing scientific information prevented the layman accessing knowledge on their own terms, it’s now available to everyone with a computer, a phone line, and a sense of curiousity.

In itself, this is glorious. It’s the triumph of the demos; the freedom of every individual to learn as much as they will about the world, and to be able to draw their own conclusions from it. It must never be stopped, and attempts to do so by, for example, attempting to circumvent FoI legislation as the researchers at the CRU appear to have done are deeply immoral.

Problems creep in, however, when we examine the structures of knowledge that arise from this new freedom. The original shining tower of science is in reality a teeming mass of competing individual towers all arising from the same foundation: that of the scientific method. The scientific method is a particular way of structuring knowledge, and provides the validity for everything that arises from it. All the individual structures of knowledge erected by researchers are built on this bedrock, and each tower they construct is only safe to stand upon inasmuch as it is firmly secured to it.

However, many of the people arguing against the climate change consensus have done something different. They’ve taken pieces of science, but from further up the collective tower. They’ve taken the rickety edifices built out over the edge of the foundation (but nonetheless purporting to be supported by it) and placed them on the ground, as the foundations of their own personal structures of knowledge. Functionally, it’s equivalent to building a house out of roofs; certainly you can do it, but it wouldn’t be able to do all the things a house can.

This is a necessary feature of liberalism: anyone who has the power to tell you what does and what does not constitute knowledge has power over you, and therefore must be held to account lest they use it to harm you. The individual is therefore forced to be the arbiter of knowledge, and the climate change controversy is proof of how far this individualist theory of knowledge has spread. A liberal society requires every individual to believe his or her personal structure of knowledge is taller than anyone elses’, in order that they may be sure they are not subject to harm. The problem is that this may not be the case, and the bits and pieces of scientific knowledge that comprise the structures of climate change deniers may not necessarily be put together to form a stable tower. The same cannot (I am happy to use absolutes here, as long as one interprets absolute truth as necessarily being intersubjective rather than objective) be true of the edifice of science. Where it is well-grounded, it is necessarily true. And given the weight of the evidence in favour of climate change, that is necessarily true.

But this does not contradict the fundamental point above. The individual must remain the arbiter of knowledge for themselves; this is what freedom entails. They must be free to hold all the doxa they wish, and reject episteme as the efforts of a scientific elite to curb their lifestyle. And this is what is happening, right now – doxa and episteme are in conflict to determine which will dominate our politics for the next decade or so. This is part of a wider movement including the upsurge in religious feeling in America and in Islamic states, and the broader historical movement that rejected enlightenment and scientific values as they led to the gas chambers and similar horrors of industrial war.

The environmental movement cannot appeal to science alone – the individuals who reject it have not founded their structures of knowledge upon it. Rather, if they wish prevent climate change, they must present them with a vision of a world which is desirable, not claim they haven’t understood how tree rings work. In a liberal society, debates aren’t settled by what’s actually true, rather what seems more advantageous.


One Response to “Let’s get all meta about climate change!”

  1. A.H. Gillett said

    episteme and doxa – harmony and counterpoint. The former is reassuring yet immobile, the latter terrifying and in constant motion. I think the liberal project has to push towards a new language of counterpoint or doxa, breaking down the idea of authorship and qualification as a reliable stability.

    That will be intellectual freedom, and will not exclude the possibility of including flexible principles as bodies in the counterpoint.

    It all depends on the results you desire. I do think science would benefit from a funded doxatic fringe.

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