To put the moral issues first is to risk corrupting the science, since moralism tends to crowd out objectivity and lead to a closing of ranks. The potentially corrupting influence of moralism on science is itself a critically important area of scientific study.
The 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that begins this week in Durban isn’t expected to see much progress in replacing Kyoto.
For those who believe that the Kyoto process is politically dangerous, economically destructive and based on dubious science, this is a good thing. Nevertheless, there is bound to be plenty of hand-wringing over the failure of rich countries to hand over more cash to poor ones as “compensation” for the climate catastrophe to come. This is one of the reasons why Al Gore and Archbishop Desmond Tutu maintain that climate change is a “moral issue.” The psychological roots and practical consequences of this claim have received much less attention than they deserve.
Lord Andrew Turnbull, a former head of the British Civil Service, has become profoundly concerned about the corruption of climate science by moralism. “There is a strong alignment,” he told me, “between those who subscribe to anthropogenic global warming as the preponderant driver of climate change, and those whose view of the world is fundamentally anti-market and anti-capitalist. That climate change should have become part of the battle of political ideas is not surprising. What is profoundly shocking is the way large parts of the scientific community have allowed themselves to be co-opted into this movement.”
Lord Turnbull notes that the leaders of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, the alleged fount of objective climate science, “have formed a tight-knit circle which seeks to portray their explanation of changing climate as the unique and correct one, while at the same time seeking to obstruct or suppress the views of those with other viewpoints.” He points out that large parts of the mainstream media “have trotted along uncritically behind the consensus.”
The recent release of a second round of hacked emails to and from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia further confirms Lord Turnbull’s take.
Harvard’s Steven Pinker, an eminent student of human nature, has remarked on the moralism behind the global-warming issue. In a 2008 article in The New York Times Magazine, titled “The Moral Instinct,” Professor Pinker wrote: “And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting.”
Prof. Pinker nevertheless finds it hard to believe that moralism might have entirely corrupted the science, but then he may not have taken into account the link between moralism and politics.
According to Al Gore, the fact that climate change is a moral issue places it “beyond politics.” This claim is, to say the least, puzzling since moral issues are the deepest motivators of — and justifications for — political activism. What Mr. Gore really seems to be claiming is that we should move past “quibbling” about the science and get straight to draconian action, which just happens to coincide with his own brand of politics: more government control at all levels; more redistribution both within and between states.
Putting the policy cart before the scientific horse makes no logical sense, but then — as philosophers have been telling us for a very long time — moral issues aren’t about either logic or sense, they are about feelings. One of those feelings is that those who challenge our most fervent moral convictions are not just wrong, but wickedly self-interested (as opposed to ourselves, whose motives are pure and selfless), stupid or downright evil.
According to prominent left-liberals such as Paul Krugman, climate deniers are analogous to benighted believers in anti-Darwinian “intelligent design.” They are non-scientific fools whose views do not deserve examination. The very term “denier” suggests psychopathology — the rejection of truth — and invites links to “Holocaust denial.” However, “deniers” are not denying a truth, they are skeptical about a theory, the theory of catastrophic man-made climate change. The devil is in the adjectives. Skeptics are also disturbed by the policies this “settled science” is said to require, because those policies have always and everywhere failed, damaging human wealth and welfare. However, those questioning the IPCC process, or alleged “consensus,” are castigated for their heresy.
Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise, who recently published a book, The Delinquent Teenager who was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert, about the profound flaws of the IPCC process, noted the moralistic vitriol that her inquiries had unleashed. “It is peculiar, indeed,” she wrote, “that people who see things differently try to link my climate views to racists, Holocaust deniers, child murderers, mental illness and the tobacco industry.… It is bizarre that prime ministers and other officials think it remotely appropriate to publicly denounce climate skeptics as cowards, saboteurs, and anti-science Flat-Earthers… Whatever happened to tolerance and mutual respect?”
The simple answer is that when ardent moralism rears its head, tolerance and mutual respect tend to be tossed out of the window, along with any inclination even to listen to what skeptics are saying.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference of skeptics about climate orthodoxy in New York City. At the end of one session — on the unfolding disaster of European climate policies — a young man appeared at the back of the room and declared that he had never witnessed “such hypocrisy.” How, he asked, could the panelists sleep at night? One of the puzzled presenters asked the young man with which parts of their presentations he disagreed.
“Oh,” said the young man. “I didn’t come here to listen to the presentations.”
Psychologist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania coined a phrase for the tendency to regard some perspectives as so morally wrong as to be beyond examination. He called it “The Psychology of Taboo.” Prof. Tetlock asked his students their opinions on a number of contentious issues, including buying and selling human organs, auctioning adoption licences, or buying one’s way out of jury duty. Respondents tended to be outraged at even being asked to consider such proposals.
Significantly, purchasing children, selling organs or buying your way out of jury duty all involve a clash between moral values and commercial values. Moral values are non-negotiable, whereas commercial values are all about haggling, and never the twain shall meet.
Climate change is not primarily a moral issue; it is a scientific issue with moral implications. To put the moral issues first is to risk corrupting the science, since moralism tends to crowd out objectivity and lead to a closing of ranks. The potentially corrupting influence of moralism on science is itself a critically important area of scientific study. Ironically, however, it is one that may be neglected because of the strong left-liberal bias of the academic community.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist who specializes in the moral foundations of politics, created an ideological uproar earlier this year when he suggested that his own field might have become “broken” because of left-liberal bias.
Dr. Haidt’s call for attempts to understand conservative moral perspectives and for a truce in the “culture wars” was admirable, but he also claimed that “climate-change denialism” was an example of conservative moral bias, of a “moral-tribal community … protecting their sacralized free markets.”
But was that suggestion itself left-liberal bias?