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July 28th 2015 print

Sean Haylock

Climate Change and Scientism

When those on the left deliver their sermons on the threat of global warming and the need to do something about it, they accept the allegedly science without question. In doing so they elevate a misplaced faith in what they would term rationality above reason

climate justiceIs anthropogenic climate change real? What’s most surprising about the climate change debate is how often commentators signal their stance by offering either a negative or an affirmative answer to this question. That is, most people seem to think that a mature response to climate change has to be based upon an assessment of the credibility of the specific scientific claims that are bound up in the notion of “climate change”. Whether one denies or affirms the reality of “climate change”, one is seen to be taking a position relative to some real or perceived consensus among scientists.

I want to suggest that it is really much more complicated than that. The dialogue between liberals and conservatives is rife with solecisms, and “climate change” is one of them. Because when liberals use the phrase “climate change” they are not simply referring to the hypothesis that carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are contributing to an exacerbated greenhouse effect which is resulting in an increase in average temperatures globally. By now, a set of progressive political programs designed to address climate change, and the attitudes that constitute acceptable speech on the subject, are inextricably bound up in the liberal notion of “climate change”. The question, “Is anthropogenic climate change real?” is, regardless of the science, already a politically loaded question.

Notably absent from the liberal notion of climate change is any recognition that the ideological implications of the debate cut both ways. Liberals may happily ascribe conservatives’ willingness to deny climate change to their antipathy for social engineering, curbs on economic freedoms, and trusting the articulated knowledge of experts, and in so doing assume that they have shot the conservative position to pieces. In response, conservatives can point out that liberals’ willingness to believe in climate change can just as easily be ascribed to their sympathy for social engineering, curbs on economic freedoms, and trusting the articulated knowledge of experts. This fact about the debate should not be brushed aside in favour of a more exacting scrutiny of the scientific evidence. Conservatives, I want to suggest, are best served not by fighting science with science but by fighting politics with politics. I won’t be the first to suggest that the climate change question is politics masquerading as science, but I’d like to be clearer than most about what this actually means.

It is possible (and even, I think, incumbent upon conservatives, to a certain extent) to take a stance against climate change without taking any position whatsoever on the question of whether carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet. In emphasising the scientific question we often entirely ignore the more pressing political questions. The question, “How is science to inform government policy?” is thought to be simply overruled by an answer (affirmative or negative) to the question “Are carbon dioxide emissions warming the planet?” But these are not the same kind of question. The first is a political question, the second is a scientific question.

The distinction is not a trivial one. The question of what constitutes just governance and the question of which forms of social organisation can be reconciled with human nature are not scientific questions. It is beyond the competence of science to offer any kind of answer to these questions. This is the fundamental truth that liberalism denies, and on the basis of the category mistake which declares the technocratic attitude equivalent to the scientific attitude. When liberals say they are appealing to science they are really appealing to scientism, the philosophy which says that all problems are amenable to a scientific solution, and all meaningful questions have a scientific answer. This is one of the founding errors of liberalism, and conservatives are on far steadier ground when they make their case against this than when they quibble over increments on a graph.

The worst perpetrators of scientism (think Richard Dawkins and his cohort) are often blithely dismissive of the very idea of scientism. They invariably subscribe to the epistemologically facile picture of an unambiguous division between the parties of science and the parties of superstition. They fail to realise that rationality is not a value in itself, that one cannot be purely rational but can only be rational about something. In their idealisation of the nonsensical abstraction of “rationality”, their blurring of the vital distinction between science and reason, and in their totalising mentality and their refusal to admit debate which contravenes the tenets of the scientistic orthodoxy, they are a model of everything they pretend to oppose in fundamentalist religion. Indeed, scientism is a fundamentalist strain of Enlightenment thought. It is rationalism elevated to a religion.

It’s hardly surprising then that “climate change”, a liberal notion deeply rooted in scientistic assumptions, should yield beliefs strikingly reminiscent of religious ones. The dire warnings of climate catastrophe, which imagine human settlements swallowed by the sea, devastated by furious storms, and consumed in hellish infernos, have become a kind of secular eschatology, an apocalypse the godless can believe in. The moral logic of “climate change” even sanctions a degree of moralism to compete with that of the most zealous Puritan. Every time you turn the ignition key in your car (that devilish device), or neglect to switch off a light, you are bringing humanity closer to apocalyptic annihilation. Most liberals of course aren’t nearly this hysterical in their climate faith. But it is easy to see an element of the flagellant in all those enthusiastic beneficiaries of the fruits of modernity ready nonetheless to believe that their dearest toys are quietly damning them. Climate advocacy becomes an atonement for the sin of loving all your wicked gadgets.

The preceding psychological sketch is not intended in any way as a reflection upon the findings of scientists. I’m only trying to suggest that, if it is an accurate picture of why many liberals find the arguments for “climate action” persuasive, then the best way to counter this psychology is to recognise its roots in scientistic thinking, as an instance of how dogmatism militates against the bounty of its cultural pillage. As you can see, I don’t intend to denigrate the attitude which regards much modern technology and the existing institutions which support it as ultimately destructive and anti-social. It’s an attitude that I am, with some important qualifications, in agreement with. Though it might align us in some superficial way with capitalism’s utopian foes, conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to admit to sharing that attitude. It is not giving ground to liberals to admit that something other than the market is the source of our deepest values, that the things most important to us are nothing like saleable products. Conservatives do give ground to liberals when they agree to allow their political principles to take a back seat to esoteric scientific debates.

Conservatives have to understand, and make it clear to our opponents, that it isn’t even a possibility that our principles, our culture, could be undermined by any piece of scientific knowledge. Our culture is a holistic construction, the heritage of our immutable past. It is not contingent upon the inquiries of experts in specialised fields.

In dismissing science’s claim to cultural influence so confidently, I may seem to characterise science the way a radical sceptic would, as the face of a particular privileged ideology, as one discourse among many, one of the many guises of oppressive power. But to think that this view is the only alternative to the one which sees science as the model of objectivity, equivalent to reason itself and unbounded in its scope, is to allow radicals of one stripe or another to dictate the terms of debate. The choice is not between science as illusion and science as sole criterion of truth. Science is a practice, or, to be more accurate, a complex of practices, a culture. When we ask how science is to inform our political actions, we have to understand that what is being proposed is a cultural dialogue. That dialogue can only be meaningful as long as one side doesn’t allow itself to be subsumed within the other. Science and politics both need to respect the borders of the other if they are to maintain any sort of meaningful relation.

Climate change represents, at the level of its political implications, as extrapolated by liberals, another incarnation of the cult of expertise. Liberals love to make false idols out of experts. They have to, since expertise is the only kind of authority left for them, having deconstructed out of existence all of the traditional kinds. To recognise this is to make no judgment either way upon the credibility of the claims of climate scientists. It is to observe a failure on the part of liberals to distinguish between the realm of competence of science and the realm of competence of politics.

The terms of the climate debate, whether the scientific evidence for the phenomenon of climate change is discussed or not, are subtly skewed in favour of a liberal conception of politics which regards science as the criterion of rationality itself and all social problems as only soluble through the application of social technology. Whenever liberals talk about climate change, vital distinctions are being stealthily demolished, those between science and politics, between science and technocracy. Conservatives shouldn’t appear so willing to let that slide.

Liberals are able to outsource their morality to experts because they operate on a utilitarian conception of morality which declares maximum preference satisfaction the highest good. Liberal morality is unitary and simple: human flourishing must be promoted at all costs and the unit of moral concern is the individual. So human flourishing is quantifiable. Happiness and harm can be weighed against each other with precision. Moral decision becomes a matter of feeding data into a more or less complicated computer (the desktop kind or the Professor of Applied Ethics kind). Morality is a matter not of contemplation but of calculation. Morality adheres not in communities but in algorithms. Politics is the organisation of society to meet a rational design; it is positive action to bring about desired outcomes decided by abstract reasoning.

As a conservative I find this picture repugnant. Nothing that a climatologist says could make me question that repugnance. As conservatives, we would do right by ourselves simply to state that fact more often than we do.

Sean Haylock is studying for an English Literature PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide.