A co-worker came to me last week and said that he saw Dennis Miller on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The subject of global warming came up, and Miller pulled out a 1975 Newsweek article on global warming called “The Cooling World (pdf)”.
For the record, the year before, Time Magazine ran a similar story called “Another Ice Age?”.
So, that’s what passes for science education in this country; comedians citing 30-year-old news publications on late-night talk shows.
I would have loved to see Jay Leno (or somebody in the same position) do the following.
First, I would like to hear something to the effect that, “Time and Newsweek are peer-reviewed scientific journals, then. I mean, the authors of these things had to pass peer review among the scientific community to get these articles accepted, right?”
Then, I would like to hear something like:
That is very interesting. As it turns out, I have brought a few publications of myself along. You’ve all heard scientists telling us that everything in the solar system orbits the sun, right? Well, look here! Our research staff has dug into the archives and found that scientists once believed the Earth was the center of the solar system. They did not believe in the sun-centered solar system at all. So, what is this sun-centered theory? It’s just another fad. Next year, they might make Jupiter the center of the solar system.
Then there’s this idea that objects, like this desk, and even our bodies, are made up of atoms. Furthermore, atoms themselves are made up of smaller things – like electrons, neutrons, and protons. Do you still buy that theory? Well, our researchers have discovered scientific writings from the past that say that atoms cannot be divided into anything. In fact, the very word ‘atom’ meant ‘thing without parts’. Now, scientists claim that atoms have parts. What will it be next year? Atoms are made up of peanut butter?
Now, there’s this idea that malaria is spread by a bacteria that people get from mosquitoes; the most recent scientific fad. Three hundred years ago, malaria was caused by swamp gas. Malaria, in fact, means ‘bad air’. Again, this germ theory of disease . . . just so much scientific hot air. In a few years, scientists might well be telling us that malaria is caused by insufficient life force in the body cavity.
Why do scientists do this? Obviously because they want research money. Scientists need to come up with different ideas all the time so they can ask for more money. If they settled on any one theory, they wouldn’t have any more work to do. They would be done. So, they have to keep changing their minds.
Actually, if you read the articles, they do not cite a single peer-reviewed scientific source. Nowhere in either article to they say that scientists are predicting a continuing decrease in temperature. They only have scientists citing the fact that, from 1940 through 1970, average global temperatures decreased. This is combined with the claim, “There have been ice ages in the past, it is reasonable to expect that we might enter one in the future.”
Scientists have learned a lot in the last 30 years. They have stacks of new data which they can use to update their theories – just like they updated their theories on the center of the solar system, the structure of atoms, and the causes of disease.
There is a matter of epistemic responsibility here. Dennis Miller is going on the air with the purpose of convincing viewers to adopt a particular point of view. There is a reason why he brought the copy of the article to show to the people. This was no accidental remark made when casual conversation drifted into a subject he would admit that he knows little about. His was a pre-meditated act calculated to have a specific affect on the attitudes of others.
If one is going to perform a calculated act of any time, one has an obligation to ask, “Am I being reckless in a way that puts others at risk of harm?”
Miller’s actions are reckless in the extreme. The above counter-arguments demonstrate how reckless his arguments are; how easy they are to refute.
Actually, the case against Miller is strengthened by the fact that Newsweek itself In revisited the article in October of this year in a web exclusive called, “Remember Global Warming.” That article explains the context of the 1975 article – the changes in the science between 1975 and today that are very much like the changes that lead to the shift from “the earth is the center of the solar system” to “the sun is the center of the solar system.”
Does Dennis Miller at all care about the harm he may be inflicting on others?
This objection does not even depend on an assumption that Dennis Miller is wrong. His actions are careless even if his conclusions prove to be correct. The form of argument that he is using is reckless.
Drunk drivers are not only morally reckless when they actually kill people. The drunk driver who happens to get home safely – this time – is just as morally contemptible as the one who kills somebody’s child. He showed the same disregard for the risk that his actions will do harm to innocent people.
Dennis Miller is morally contemptible, not because he is (almost certainly) wrong, but because he shows no appreciation for the risk of being wrong and for the harms that being wrong would impose on others. He does not care. If he cared, then – just as the good driver takes care to drive in a way that does not put others at risk, a good speaker makes sure that he does not say things that put other people at risk.
The unreasonable claims that people make are fertile grounds for moral criticism.
If you tell somebody something that he does not want to believe, then he is far more likely to see through the poor reasoning and identify the flaws then if you tell him something he wants to believe. So, if a person fails to recognize easily demonstrated flaws in an argument defending some claim, then we have reason to believe that he wants to believe that the claim is true and, because of that, he is not interested in looking for or recognizing problems with the arguments being offered to defend this claim.
In other words, mistaken beliefs give us window into a person’s desires. And desires – good and bad – I have argued is what morality is primarily about.
One of the reasons that we can condemn the anti-gay evangelical bigot is because there must be some reason why he sees the flaws in the biblical prohibition on collecting interest, but blinds himself to the fact that biblical prohibitions on homosexual sex suffer from the same flaws. His blindness lets us see through to his desires – greed and hate. A person who was not greedy, or a person who did not hate, would see that, in biblical terms, there is no justification for these different attitudes.
In the case of Dennis Miller, the fact that he wants to use his appearance on the Tonight Show to convince people of something that could destroy people’s lives and property – an argument he can quickly check and discover to be invalid - suggests that he does not care that the argument is invalid. It suggests he does not care about the risks to lives and property that he might cause. He, like the drunk driver, does not care about the trail of bodies that he might leave behind as he tries to drive home.
The next assertion that one can expect is to say that my moral criticism of Dennis Miller for making the claims he made on the Tonight Show counts as censorship. After all, Miller has the right to say whatever he pleases. If I am condemning him for his words, then I must favor censorship.
Well, in the same vein as my earlier post called “Speaking vs. Acting” in which I argued that criticism as not intolerance,” it is also true that criticism is not censorship. Claiming censorship simply because somebody says, “A good person would not have spoken as irresponsibly as you did,” is another tricks of the demagogue trying to shift condemnation from one who deserve it (himself) to one who does not (his critic).
Think of the incoherence of the idea that moral criticism is censorship. Assume that this principle is valid. If it were valid, then telling somebody that he is wrong to engage in moral criticism of others (because it is censorship) – would itself be an attempt to censor moral criticism. It would be a principle that one had to violate in order to use.
Criticism – even moral criticism – is not censorship. I am not saying that Dennis Miller should be thrown in jail for anything that he said. I am not advocating any type of violence at all. Everything I have written here is consistent with the principle that the only legitimate response to “words” are “counter-words,” and the only legitimate response to a peaceful political campaign is a counter-campaign.
However, counter-words and private action (in response to words) and political counter-campaigns (in response to a political campaign) are perfectly legitimate responses.
This is what Dennis Miller deserves – some moral condemnation (not punishment – not violence) for his use of air time to make morally reprehensible claims that have a serious potential to destroy the lives and property of others – something that no person who cares about such losses would risk imposing on others.