Previous post:

Next post:

A week in which I found myself defending climate sceptics by invoking John Stuart Mill’s “In Liberty”

by Mel Starrs on November 9, 2009

in Opinion, Theory and Comment

It was a funny old week, last week.

First we have the Clive James kerfuffle, subsequent to his essay “In praise of scepticism“. There was some dissent against James on Twitter (which I am increasingly becoming disillusioned with as a tool for proper discourse and debate – 140 characters is not enough space to make points properly unless you are phenomenally eloquent). Many were equating sceptiscism with denialism, which was overegging James’ views somewhat. But I didn’t make too much of a deal about it and trundled on.

Then we had the Tim Nicholson vs. Grainger case on Tuesday, which I will say no more about, but appears to have been one of the catalysts for what happened next.

On Wednesday night, Amanda Baillieu dared to voice dissent with regards to climate change on Twitter. Her initial tweet was:

I am becoming increasingly irritated by the green lobby and the idea that its to be treated like a religion http://is.gd/4N8sH

Followed by:

Basically believing in man made climate change is a bit like hoping that fairies live at the bottom of the garden.

There followed a fair amount of toing and froing with various parties, as I gawped from the sidelines. I pondered whether Amanda was negating low carbon design and resource efficiency along with this scepticism? Luckily she redefined how she felt in her editorial for BD on Friday. And this is when the “where is the evidence you refer to?” attacks really began to gain traction.

Now, I may disagree with Amanda (I’ve covered my Pascal’s Wager here), but like I said in that post, I tend to keep out of global warming debates – in a way, I don’t really care. In fact, if I had to embark on a global warming debate with a client every time we wanted to build anything, I’d still be staring at a blank sheet of paper. And despite currently coming down on the side of the climate change scientists, I’ve actually read a fair bit of Lomborg and Crichton, to act as a counterfoil to Monbiot and Stern (an important discipline as I outlined in my how to read non-fiction post). I suspect there may be those who have attacked Amanda’s article without reading any literature on the topic at all. Not good enough.

What many of the commenter’s fail to pick up, is that despite Amanda’s agnosticism (after all, she admits to scepticism, which whilst it might be cynical, is certainly not denial-ism) on climate change science, she still supports ‘green’ design:

“…there’s no argument that natural resources such as water need to be conserved and low-energy buildings make sense…”

So did Amanda really deserve the criticism she got in return? One of the most outraged was Justin Bere who managed to write two posts, one outlining the events on Twitter blow by blow (which is handy as now I don’t have to) and another in which he addresses the “evidence” argument. There are many others who exprssed outrage in the comments to the article (although with some showing support). But what really matters here is our actions, not the beliefs that are behind them. To quote John Stuart Mills’ “On Liberty“:

…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.

In other words, one should have the freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions (aka freedom of speech). Mills also argued that censorship harms society, not only by limiting freedom, but because a banned opinion may be true or contain some truth, or will challenge the accepted one and prevent it becoming a mere dogma.

I shouldn’t have to point out that I’m a fan of freedom of speech – and I do think contrarians have a useful role in society. Even when we have reached a consensus opinion, we should continue to scrutinize and debate. As I’ve said before:

“…perhaps there is an opportunity to use antagonists such as Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg and even Tim Worstall to check our thinking. Without doing so, we run the risk of heading down cul-de-sacs unquestioningly. Question everything.”

An argument often bandied around is that websites and forums are not the proper channel to hold debates such as these. This episode highlights the drawbacks of such technology, especially twitter. But, it’s better to have some debate than to gag anyone whose opinions don’t match our own. I’ll add Amanda to my list of ‘useful contrarians’ and hope a few more people potter off to read up on Mills.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  • Colm

    I don’t really understand how it is a freedom of speech issue though. Who has tried to silence her?

  • Colm

    I don’t really understand how it is a freedom of speech issue though. Who has tried to silence her?

  • admin

    @Colm
    Colm – there were many commenters who expressed outrage that Amanda should even consider voicing such an opinion, and she shouldn’t have done so. My point is that she should have, if that’s what she felt (and she did, so maybe freedom of speech prevailed after all?).

  • admin

    @Colm
    Colm – there were many commenters who expressed outrage that Amanda should even consider voicing such an opinion, and she shouldn’t have done so. My point is that she should have, if that’s what she felt (and she did, so maybe freedom of speech prevailed after all?).

  • Colm

    Some of the comments did verge on the shrill side, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with those that asked for some evidence to back up the claims in the article. There is nothing wrong with challenging the prevailing consensus, but you need to have fashioned a stronger argument if you are going to do so.

  • Colm

    Some of the comments did verge on the shrill side, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with those that asked for some evidence to back up the claims in the article. There is nothing wrong with challenging the prevailing consensus, but you need to have fashioned a stronger argument if you are going to do so.

  • Will

    I agree, Mills does make the point best:
    That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

    Well in terms of climate change, that time has clearly come. Dealing with climate change is absolutely about preventing “harm” to some of the worlds poorest and most disenfranchised peoples, as it is they who cannot afford to ‘adapt’ as western nations might be able to afford to do.

    Scepticism, I agree, is a healthy democratic quality. The problem here is as much to do with the scientists as anybody else. They have not been able to get their message across about scientific consensus, about notions of risk, probability and doubt in a media that is obsessed with creating bipolar political debate over climate change. They give voices for and against equal air time in some false nod to journalistic balance. Thus it leads to the view of those who don’t trawl scientific journals that substantial doubt exists where it does not.

    This doubt gets picked up particularly by baby boom and older libertarians who have been scarred by the previous errors in the declaration of scientific ‘fact’ as occurred in the second half of the 20th century in the same way they became disillusioned with politics.

    The ultimate result is the delay of action that can no longer be delayed as political will amongst the people and their representatives fades as election deadlines loom. 2050 is a mere eye blink away in the context of climate history and that is all the time we have left.

  • Will

    I agree, Mills does make the point best:
    That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

    Well in terms of climate change, that time has clearly come. Dealing with climate change is absolutely about preventing “harm” to some of the worlds poorest and most disenfranchised peoples, as it is they who cannot afford to ‘adapt’ as western nations might be able to afford to do.

    Scepticism, I agree, is a healthy democratic quality. The problem here is as much to do with the scientists as anybody else. They have not been able to get their message across about scientific consensus, about notions of risk, probability and doubt in a media that is obsessed with creating bipolar political debate over climate change. They give voices for and against equal air time in some false nod to journalistic balance. Thus it leads to the view of those who don’t trawl scientific journals that substantial doubt exists where it does not.

    This doubt gets picked up particularly by baby boom and older libertarians who have been scarred by the previous errors in the declaration of scientific ‘fact’ as occurred in the second half of the 20th century in the same way they became disillusioned with politics.

    The ultimate result is the delay of action that can no longer be delayed as political will amongst the people and their representatives fades as election deadlines loom. 2050 is a mere eye blink away in the context of climate history and that is all the time we have left.

  • http://www.elementalsolutions.co.uk Nick Grant

    Mel

    I’m a born again skeptic but skepticism is about evidence and reasoned arguments. Amanda made some very misleading statements that will doubtless be picked up by the conspiracy theorists and Daily Mail hacks.

    The problem for me is that it is an opinion about fact (that there is a growing wealth of scientific evidence . . . ) and made in what is supposed to be a respectable journal.

    Is someone wants to voice the opinion that we are all going to die anyway so lets party, I would not be the least outraged. It is when opinion is presented as fact that I get narked because it is misleading.

    The C4 Global warming swindle was a good case in point as I’m sure plenty more people heard the ‘climate change is a swindle’ message than followed the tedious but necessary point by point dismantling of the programme’s errors.

    So I’m with Colm and Will

  • http://www.elementalsolutions.co.uk Nick Grant

    Mel

    I’m a born again skeptic but skepticism is about evidence and reasoned arguments. Amanda made some very misleading statements that will doubtless be picked up by the conspiracy theorists and Daily Mail hacks.

    The problem for me is that it is an opinion about fact (that there is a growing wealth of scientific evidence . . . ) and made in what is supposed to be a respectable journal.

    Is someone wants to voice the opinion that we are all going to die anyway so lets party, I would not be the least outraged. It is when opinion is presented as fact that I get narked because it is misleading.

    The C4 Global warming swindle was a good case in point as I’m sure plenty more people heard the ‘climate change is a swindle’ message than followed the tedious but necessary point by point dismantling of the programme’s errors.

    So I’m with Colm and Will

  • AJ intern

    “I’m all in favour of a good debate. And maybe that’s what Amanda wanted to spark with last week’s BD editorial, deriding the current government and the RIBA’s position on climate change. However, suggesting that we should seriously consider ‘the growing wealth of scientific evidence’ that climate change is not man-made, is utter nonsense…”

    Read the full response of Hattie Hartman, Sustainability Editor of the Architects’ Journal at:

    http://blog.emap.com/footprint/

  • AJ intern

    “I’m all in favour of a good debate. And maybe that’s what Amanda wanted to spark with last week’s BD editorial, deriding the current government and the RIBA’s position on climate change. However, suggesting that we should seriously consider ‘the growing wealth of scientific evidence’ that climate change is not man-made, is utter nonsense…”

    Read the full response of Hattie Hartman, Sustainability Editor of the Architects’ Journal at:

    http://blog.emap.com/footprint/

  • andrew

    John Stuart Mill…. Reminds me of the Philosophers song by monty python!

  • andrew

    John Stuart Mill…. Reminds me of the Philosophers song by monty python!

  • http://www.globalwarming360.net/ Global Warming

    Global warming occurs because of the increase in temperature around the Earth’s atmosphere. Global warming is a serious problem, and I do what I can to help slow the process.