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September 10th 2012 print

Michael Kile

On suffering fools

Cicero warned against taking philosophers too seriously. A recent lecture by globe-girdling climate alarmist Lawrence Torcello makes the old Roman's point rather nicely


There was a chill in the theatre; a sense that somehow a battle was being lost. Or was it just the wild night, unseasonal hail (extreme weather event), or lecture topic: “Free Speech, Public Discourse, and the Moral Blameworthiness of Suffering Fools”? Whatever the case, the auditorium (capacity 180 persons) was more than half empty.


Dr Lawrence Torcello, assistant professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, had been invited to address the University of Western Australia Club because his work is “terrific,” according to convener Michael Levine, a Winthrop Professor in UWA’s School of Philosophy.

Torcello’s “fools” are those who believe the denialist rubbish allegedly fed to them by cabals of “corporate-sponsored public relations firms, by ideologically-driven politicians, hack journalists, pundits, and ill-informed private citizens” — by mischievous folk, in other words, who exploit the “significant advantage that nonsense has over factual information critical to informed public policy”.

According to UK philosopher, A C Grayling: “There are fashions in philosophy, in the sense that a given topic or area of debate consumes interest and discussion for a while, before the spotlight of attention moves on to another area” (Scepticism and the possibility of knowledge, 2008, ix). The discipline’s spotlight is now at least partly on the planet’s climate.

Torcello is a specialist in – not (climate) science – but medical bio-ethics. One of his key premises: “climate change is a plausible candidate for the most serious moral issue of our time”, given “its catastrophic effects on the planet’s vulnerable populations.”

Slippery slope: An argument that suggests a seemingly trivial or inconsequential action- [eg: developed world’s carbon dioxide emissions] – will start an irreversible chain of events, leading to catastrophe.

He began with a quote from that popular and erudite treatise, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.” This was, Torcello said, the core of his lecture: “careless speech [eg: speech questioning the climate orthodoxy] has moral consequences”.

One fashionable trick of the trade is to divide scepticism into “good” (rational) and “bad” (irrational) categories; while ignoring dilemmas of overlap and whether value judgement plays any role in classification.

 “Actual scepticism”, Torcello argues, is “about positive inquiry and critical thinking, as well as proportioning one’s beliefs to the available evidence (not to mention being willing to alter those beliefs if and when the evidence changes significantly).”

In the “bad” corner lurks a dangerous beast: pseudo-scepticism. It “makes a virtue of doubt per se, regardless of other considerations, and is therefore irrational.”

Yet many of Torcello’s climate change “denialists” raise legitimate concerns, but nevertheless are thrust into the latter category — lumped together with AIDS denialists, creationists, intelligent designers, with those who believe vaccination causes autism or that central bank quantitative easing stimulates economic growth, and so on. And what precisely is it they are accused of denying?

Atmospheric scientist, John Christy, was one of Torcello’s targets. His public statement a decade ago — that "carbon dioxide is not a pollutant" — remains as heretical a claim one could make today and continues to cause apoplexy in the orthodoxy.

“It might be good for you if are citrus fruit,” quipped cherry-picker Torcello. “Unfortunately most of us are not citrus fruit. The most affected also are the least responsible [for climate change].”

Cherry-picking: 1. Act of pointing to individual cases or data that seems to confirm a particular position, while ignoring related material that contradicts it. 2. Also known as fallacy of incomplete evidence or selective attention. See confirmation bias. 3. Origin: Analogous to the process of harvesting cherries. An observer who only sees the best – or worst – fruit may conclude wrongly that all of it is high- or low -quality.

“Do not to fall into the trap of calling “denialists” sceptics,” he warned the audience. “To describe them as sceptics would endow them with a certain level of sophistication they do not have a right to” (laughter).

Grayling has a subtler take. For him, “it is a mistake to think of scepticism as consisting in an agniology; that is, a thesis to the effect that we are ignorant either globally or in some region of enquiry. The briefest reflection shows that global agniology is trivially self-defeating: if we know nothing, then we do not know that we know nothing (page 172).”

Weak forms of local agniology, however, “remind us that our knowledge in given regions of enquiry [eg: climate change] is incomplete, or provisional, and that a healthy attitude of open-minded scrutiny must greet each new claimed advance in them – are perfectly acceptable…In this guise they amount merely to injunctions to be rational.”

The sceptics I know of — and there are many — fit into this category. It is one Torcello not only ignores, but also wants to bury by unjustifiably dumping them into his “pseudo-sceptical” box which, like the sixth circle reserved for heretics in Dante’s Inferno, is full of lost souls, all suffering from terminal “denialism” with regard to a “well-established scientific consensus.”

Yet folk like John McLean (see QOL, “Big bunnies of climate science) clearly have sufficient “sophistication” to join Grayling’s “best” sceptics: those who insist on “a defence of our justificatory practices…such as our ways of getting, testing, employing and reasoning about our beliefs”; who recognise the fallibility of perception, “human vulnerability to error”, existence of deluded states of mind and so on (page 173).

Torcello’s perspective, ironically, grew out of W K Clifford’s 1879 work, The Ethics of Belief. Yet Clifford’s conclusion – “It is wrong, always, everywhere to make any claim on insufficient evidence” – seems to have been ignored by more than a few members of the orthodoxy.

So how do we achieve “genuine public discourse”? Torcello’s recommendations:

(1)   Ethical obligations of inquiry extend to every voting citizen, insofar as citizens are bound together as a political body; 

(2)   It is morally condemnable to put forward unwarranted public assertions contrary to scientific consensus when such consensus is decisive for public policy and legislation; and 

(3)   It is imperative upon educators, journalists, politicians and all those with greater access to the public forum to condemn, factually and ethically, pseudo-sceptical assertions without equivocation.

“We need experts,” he emphasised. “That’s the reality. Could a non-expert really catch out all the experts? Occam’s razor says you are fallible. An entire community of scientists can’t be wrong.”

“So if scientific consensus is available, we should stick with it. It protects one from confirmation bias. In any case, science is not in a category that can be decided by debate.”

Bandwagon effect: Accepting or rejecting a claim, not on the basis of its merits, but simply on the basis that many others are doing so.

“The application of public reason provides a model for avoiding pseudo-scepticism in the public realm,” he continued, “and for critiquing it in the public realm. Here’s where philosophers are valuable. They are very good at being critical; while remembering fallibility is always good.”

As for “pseudo-sceptical politicians” – Torcello’s cherry-picked examples were no surprise: Mitt Romney, James Inhofe (US Republican Senator, Oklahoma) and Tony Abbott – “these people are either wilfully ignorant, or corrupt. They are morally condemnable. We must actively refute their nonsense in the public space.”

Who are the gate-keepers preventing “unwarranted public assertions contrary to scientific consensus” from disrupting the orthodoxy? They are all those involved in the international peer-review process.

Coincidentally, Brendan O’Neill described the game being played here in an Australian column last weekend, “Peer review a way of silencing troublemakers”:

Under the guise of promoting "correct science" and slamming "bad science", the priestly peer-review lobby is actually enforcing an ideological world view, using the tags "peer reviewed" and "non peer-reviewed" to distinguish between those who are politically on side and those who remain stubbornly heretical… The extraordinary thing about the liberal intelligentsia’s wide-eyed faith in peer review is that this academic process is actually massively open to corruption.

Meanwhile, the orthodoxy’s defenders continue to ignore the rotten apples (and cherries), dismissing Climategate as “the tip of an iceberg of venality enveloping anti-science interests and their enablers”; turn a blind eye to Donna Laframboise’s powerful critique of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s confirmation bias, and so on.

When confronted with the intractable nature of climate uncertainty, they dish up fanciful claims, such as this one: “the less we know, the more we should worry.” Using the (pseudo-scientific) “precautionary principle”, they argue that “something must be done”.

I asked Torcello whether he thought the world would be a better place if it was run by philosophers. “It would be an incredibly better place,” he replied, “if run by people who valued philosophy” (and presumably also philosophers).

According to my philosophy lecturer years ago, there is a good reason why the subject is worth studying: “to protect oneself against other philosophers”. He was right.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was onto this in 44BCE. There is nothing so absurd,” he wrote, “that it has not been said by some philosopher (De Divinatione, book 2, section 58); or at this strange decarbonising moment in history, by some climate alarmist or academic "conspiracist ideation" theorist.

© Michael Kile  — September 2012