Friday, May 04, 2007

My Uncle: Still a Crank

I was on the phone with my ailing grandfather the other day. He doesn't hear well and talks to me on his speakerphone. My uncle Ed, who never moved out of my grandfather's house, lives up in the attic smoking weed, has given up on life, and sits around waiting for Jesus to come to take him to Heaven, overheard. He decided it was a good time to prove to me that, even after all these years, he can still bring the crazy.

I mentioned to my grandfather, unaware that Ed was listening, that I had attended a global warming rally. Ed took this admission as a throwing down of the gauntlet and he jumped right in. He asked me, "So, global warming is all because of humans and it's George Bush's fault, right?"

Now, since I tend to be much more reasonable in live debates than I am here, I said, "Well, I don't know that global warming is entirely caused by human activity. But, even if other factors are at play, a significant portion is, and that's the portion we can do something about. And no, it's not George Bush's fault. The problem preexisted his presidency, though he hasn't done anything to help."

Then he said something incomprehensible about albedo (he clearly didn't know what albedo meant but had heard Rush or Hannity mention it or something), before repeating, "So, global warming is all because of humans and it's George Bush's fault, right?"

I figured there were two possible explanations for this: He has alzheimer's, or he only knows the talking points of the conservative nutbags he listens to and so he needs my arguments to conform to the strawman they argue against or he's got nothing. That's a sign you're talking to someone who really understands the issues, when he or she desperately gets you to try and agree to his or her strawman characterization of your position! He obviously hasn't yet mastered the right's rhetorical trick of simply asserting that you agree with the strawman position no matter how often you point out you don't.

He then claimed that the left thinks the world would be better off "without people to mess everything up." That is to say, he thinks that liberals -- you know, those of us who spend so much time trying to defend others' human rights, promote equality, end racial injustice, end poverty, make sure the elderly get the medications they need, prevent and end genocides around the world, and help the disadvantaged get educations -- want to do away with humans entirely. Why, exactly, would liberals care so much about helping other people if they really thought humans were just a blight on the planet? Coming from my uncle to me, that comment was kind of like Genghis Khan telling Mother Theresa that she thinks the poor should be exterminated.

Then, he started in on -- and I am not making this up -- that maybe the Earth is closer to or farther away from the sun now than in the past, and that's the reason for global warming. When I told him that the Earth's average distance from the sun has been pretty constant for most of recorded human history, he said, "How do you know?" I started explaining to him that we have records remaining about the Earth's position relative to the other planets and the sun from various sources throughout the history of people gazing at the sky. But he didn't even wait for me to finish my explanation (proving that he didn't care about the answer in the first place, and only brought up the objection to try to stump me, not because he actually believed it) to move to his next point, the old saw of, "It's just part of a natural cycle."

I still don't understand how global warming deniers think either of these arguments help them. If, indeed, the Earth has moved closer to the sun and that is the cause of the increases in global temperature we are seeing, of if the Earth is just naturally heating up, does that somehow ameliorate the negative effects of the warming? It really doesn't. Natural processes can still destroy human civilization as we know it or cause mass extinctions that would wipe out humanity too. Were the citizens of Pompeii wiped out by the eruption of Vesuvius better off or any less dead because they were wiped out by a natural process? Not really.

I guess they hope that, by proving that humans aren't causing global warming, that human action can't do anything to curb it either. But that's crap too. If a natural process is moving the Earth toward a state where it will be difficult for human civilization to continue to exist, then we just have to sit around and say, "Oh, well. Them's the breaks"? If human contributions to the greenhouse effect are heightening or enhancing a natural process that is dangerous to human civilization, that means somehow there's no reason to do anything about the human contribution to the problem? We just have to say, "Well, it's bad anyway, so we might as well make it worse"? That's like deciding to take up smoking after you've been diagnosed with lung cancer.

(Aside: What's funny about global warming deniers is that we absolutely positively know that a runaway greenhouse effect can result in unlivable conditions on a planet of similar size as ours orbiting a sun like ours: It's called Venus, bitches.)

But then was the piece d'resistance, is one of the defining characteristics of the crank: Belief in a conspiracy theory. When I told my uncle that I accept the evidence that climate change is happening and likely caused by human activity, he asserted: "That's just because scientists are extreme left-wingers who want you to believe in global warming."

Now he's bringing the world-class stupid. This is like Michael Jordan flying from half-court to dunk the ball level stupid. According to my uncle, millions of scientists, working at hundreds and hundreds of universities, government agencies, private research facilities, and non profit groups, who have never met, come from all different linguistic, ethnic, ideological, backgrounds, in disparate countries around the world, have all somehow gotten the super-secret memo telling them to push the fantasy of global warming on the unsuspecting throngs. That the entirety of evidence compiled that indicates that global climate change is a reality was all faked for some reason by people who won't release the real data in order to continue the charade. And that they have faked up data that has fooled millions of very intelligent people like me who understand logic and science much better than my uncle or the right-wing blowhards he listens to.

Plus, what, exactly, would be the motive for this conspiracy? If global climate change really is just a conspiracy, who thought it up, and why? It couldn't be a simple explanation like that scientists are tree-huggers, because lots of scientists are working in the fields producing the chemicals, toxins, and machines that are destroying the planet in the first place. There's really no coherent motive you could ascribe to millions of scientists to fake a global climate change panic. Especially since there isn't agreement, even on the left, about what the hell to do about it! If this really were a conspiracy, you'd think the guys in charge would have disseminated a more coherent plan and that the good little conspiracy soldiers would all be pushing it, right?

Not withstanding that he's just arguing by authority: "Scientists are extreme left-wingers and therefore nothing they say matters." When the evidence and the truth aren't on your side, smear your opponents. Page one of the Karl Rove playbook. Not that my uncle would know that. I'm sure he's just parroting Rush or Hannity again.

It's funny how perfectly my uncle fits the definition of a crank. According to wikipedia, one of the nearly universal traits of the crank is that they "overestimate their own knowledge and ability, and underestimate that of acknowledged experts." My uncle (I may have mentioned this in a previous post, if so, sorry!), after two semesters of a junior college program in GPS, an Associate's program, started lecturing me about GPS and how it works, as if he were an expert. At the time, I had a degree in electrical engineering and had worked on military GPS systems for the Air Force and designed communications/navigation systems for in Alaska for use by emergency management personnel up there. But his two semesters of junior college made him the expert, of course. (He did not, unsurprisingly, finish the program).

I think I shall pilfer an idea from some other blogs I like to read and create a special award I can hand out to the most stupid people that come across my transom. I will bestow upon my uncle the first of these awards named for him. I will make future awards as I see fit.

So, congratulations, uncle Ed, the first recipient of the Ed Renner Award! Let's give him a hand!


At 4:50 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Wow, reading this post resurrected a vivid memory of your grandfather's house (assuming he's still in the same one). I've not thought of that house in many, many years.

The science-conspiracy argument is the one I have the hardest time understanding.

First of all, science is a deductive process, which means it primarily moves forward by disagreeing with what was published in the past, not agreeing. The entire mechanism of science is antithetical to unwarranted consensus.

Second, from a personal point of view, scientists essentially work for esteem (not money, let me tell you) ... and one is estimable when one is distinguished from others. So it makes no sense to agree with your contemporaries unless there's good reason and good evidence to do so.

Finally, scientists are arrogant SOBs ... and, like the cliché goes, where there's three scientists in a room, there's at least five opinions. Quite simply: We just don't agree all that often. When we do, it's noteworthy.

When lay-people make the claim that scientists have some hegemony of opinion, it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the process of science, the process of scientific publication, and the nature of scientists themselves.

It's absurd. It's worse than absurd, it's pejorative and insulting.

Anyway ... I don't know if you've ever seen it, but there was a great Washington Post Magazine article about a year ago about GW skeptics.

The basic gist of it is a sense of desperateness: A group frantically digging up the most tenuous and specious counter arguments without any cohesive sense of explanation, jumping arbitrarily from one extreme to the other in frantic attempt to cast doubt on prevailing evidence-based positions.

This jives with my experience: Even the most educated and otherwise reasonable GW opponents spend an awful lot of time desparately searching for any scrap of doubt they can find; they will often uncritically accept fairly radical and extreme claims that support their position, while maintaining the perfectly reasonable position that they've a right to treat extant research with a critical eye.

The problem is that they are dubious and critical of well-founded, well studied scientific positions and totally uncritical of those that support their position.

The idea of examining the whole range of scientific positions on their merits and selecting a position that is best supported, regardless of their own bias, seems difficult for them. It's a kid of intellectual laziness in my mind.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

What you describe in your last few paragraphs is a classic hallmark of denialism, be it holocaust denial, AIDS/HIV denial, or global climate change denial.

In addition, an interesting phenomenon I recently read about is how denialist groups with disparate reasons for the same belief have banded together, even though evidence that prove's one group's theory correct would actually disprove the other's, if evidence actually mattered.

For instance, a group of HIV/AIDS denialists who believe HIV exists but isn't the cause of AIDS has banded together with a group who believes HIV doesn't exist at all and therefore couldn't cause AIDS. These two theories are, of course, mutually exclusive, but since both groups care most about convincing others that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, they can both work together to trumpet any evidence that might back that claim, even if it doesn't make sense in regard to their particular theory.

It's very bizarre.


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