Monday, December 18, 2006

Dennis Miller, Global Warming, and Epistemic Negligence

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.


Anonymous said...

I, for one, happened to see that particular show with Dennis Miller and I took it for what it was worth - humor. He is a comedian, after all and I think we should all understand that. It was very funny and the comment about how he was actually helping with the oil crisis by buying the biggest SUV so he would use more oil/gas so that we would run out quicker because everyone knows we won't actually come up with alternative fuels until we're completely out of oil - was great. We all should have a good enough understanding of humor and sarcasm to take that whole thing for what it was worth - levity and humor. I don't think he ever claimed to be a scientist. Everybody relax, take a deep breath and calm down.

Anonymous said...

The ecocatastrophists are just as much to blame as Dennis Miller. People have busy lives, and they've heard this same claim in different forms -- the population explosion, global cooling, the depletion of the Earth's resources, the fish disappearing, DDT (which led to countless deaths in Africa), etc -- enough times that they will shrug their shoulders at the next one.

Just as the average person doesn't feel he's obligated to investigate consipracy theories prior to ridiculing one, he's started to feel the same way about the secular Jehova's Witnesses howling about the end of the world. It's too bad, really, because global warming and our ability to affect it may be real.

But they should be a bit more cautious when making claims (e.g., Al Gore's claims contradicted by the UN report) or people quite listening.

It doesn't help that seculaism's version of the religious fanatic are the one's in the fore-front of this.

Nobody, after all, really wants to hear what the man on the street corner, holding a bible, screaming like a lunatic, has to say about the end of the world. Fairly or unfairly, many people think environmental scientists -- at least the one's asking for gov't regulation, complaining about the U.S -- are just the educated cousins of the man on the street corner.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, as the other person said, he's a comedian. I hear the most irresponsible positions coming from comedians' and actors' ALL THE TIME. An odd place to point your sharp mind. I think the maxim "choose your battles" would be good to remember. It just looks like bullying, and you're WAY too smart to need to pick on the weak and irrelavent.

Anonymous said...

I live outside the US and just saw the show yesterday. Dennis Miller is more then a comedian. He's perceived as "the sage humorous commentator" of our times, the one for who's jokes you need a thesaurus and a dictionary. When someone like that downplays global warming I think it does affect people's opinions. I completely agree with the atheist ethicist. The stakes here are potentially billions of lives - perhaps humanity itself so it is morally irresponsible to play games with humanity's fate just to get invited to talk shows and create a buzz about your so called novel take on climate change. I really used to like that guy. Now he sickens me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I was alerted to this when I heard people I associate with talking about the show. They were convinced by his "argument", which is why I wrote a piece refuting the argument.

Before writing the piece, I got a video of the show so that I could see what actually happened.

Dennis Miller is listened to and, as such, he has a responsibility not to lead people astray

Anonymous said...

The difference between the 70's Time Article about the next Ice Age and the scientific assumption about the Earth being the center of the universe is one of prediction or proving current facts. Scientist are Terrible at predicting. In 2005 after Katrina they said 2006would be a horrible hurricane season, but not a single hurricane landing on shore. And scientists are wrong about Global Warming too. Sincerely
Obediah Thomas

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, scientific claims live and die by their ability to make successful predictions.

From predicting the date and time of the next solar eclipse (and where the track will be), to predicting the course of a hurricane, to predicting where an artillery shell will land, to predicting what will happen when you shine a certain band of energy through a certain volume of gas, science is nothing but predictions.

Some predictions fail, at which point the theories behind the prediction are re-examined and changed. Every failure to predict brings about a correction in the theory, meaning that scientific predictions get better and better over time.

In fact, you will not provide a peer-reviewed scientific paper produced in the 1970s that predicted an ice age. The articles that Dennis Miller and others quote are from news magazines, whose products are not peer reviewed.

So, the fault is not with science. The fault is with the news media. If you want to know what scientists thought, find the peer-reviewed articles that actually made those predictions. You will not find any.

Anonymous said...

For you people who don't think it is a big deal that comedians ridicule environmentalism, and who tell this man to "pick his battles" and point his sharp mind elswhere: Don't underestimate the general public's inability to remember where it heard some such Dennis Millerian nonsense when it goes shooting its mouth off in a bar or at home (places that matter more than you think). Don't underestimate its inability, for that matter, to even really understand that "what comedians say should be taken with a grain of salt" as you want to say. FWI: COMEDIC POP PERSONALITIES ARE MUCH MORE INFLUENTIAL OF POPULAR ATTITUDES THAN YOU WOULD LIKE TO THINK.