Saturday, November 30, 2013

On John Stuart Mill, Free Speech, and Climate Change

I got caught up in a few arguments about climate change recently that just reinforced to me, that there’s still such a strong bashlash against the entire idea that we’re unlikely to move forward quickly enough to be effective.

Paper is trees!
My school board is fundraising for the Philippines, and I’m totally on board with it. But I commented publicly on the irony of sending each kid home with a piece of paper on the issue. That’s over 60,000 full pieces of paper or about 8 trees for something that will be crumpled at the bottom of a knapsack or tossed before it even makes it home.  We’re cutting down trees to make paper to ask people to help those affected by conditions exacerbated by the cutting down of trees. And there are other ways to get the word out like our websites and automatic phone callers. If we really want to use paper, the notices could at least be sent on half pages or on re-use-it paper (‘goos’ paper in some places).

Pretty straightforward and reasonable, right??

Not so fast. A colleague ridiculed me for quibbling about paper when people are struggling to cope with a “NATURAL” disaster. I responded with a quote from the IPCC linking extreme weather to climate change and a suggestion that we're negligent if we don't take responsibility for our small daily actions having an accumulative and disastrous effect elsewhere.  But I'm pretty sure it's all for nought.  Sigh.

But, as is often the case, a much more interesting conversation happened with my students.

John Stuart Mill
We were talking about John Stuart Mill’s support of free speech:
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
I took the position of arguing in favour of Mill, that we should encourage vocal expression of an opinion especially when it differs from our own. I offered up the example of a someone denying the holocaust. Even Chomsky defended his right to speak. Without dissent we could end up blindly following the prevailing notions of the day, which could be completely mistaken. We shouldn’t be forced to agree, but encouraged to continue to offer up evidence to support our position until we’ve convinced everyone we encounter. History textbooks used to imply that it was awfully nice of all the white folks to come help the “Indians” become more civilized. And now we’re glad that people were allowed to disagree with the school curriculum.  Disagreement is a necessary condition of social progress.

Some students argued that people could be easily swayed by a charismatic speaker or a biased news article, but, I countered, it's all the more reason to ensure that we have an educated populace.  In a society where speech is truly free, we'd all take more care to be fully prepared to counter unreasonable arguments.  We have to acknowledge that we're all fallible, and take great care not to arrogantly stifle  opposing opinions:  Mill says, "for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility."

But then students suggested climate change is a hoax, and I faltered.  Well, actually, I completely bailed.

I just want people to stop saying that. It’s far too important to get people on track on this, and we’ll never change people’s habits, or change the government, if a backlash of disagreement over the science gets in the way over and over.

Seems like a good argument...
I offered up, 97% of climate experts believe the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change which will kill many people and other mammals in a variety of ways. BUT this is philosophy, not science, and that’s an ad populum fallacy. It doesn’t matter if a position is a commonly accepted idea, but that it has the most convincing support.

I got some curious responses to this one beyond that though, like, ‘maybe they only surveyed scientists who believe in it,’ and ‘maybe the survey was biased,’ and ‘this is all just a belief system as valid as any other.’ That last one’s a problem.  It's cause for concern that students almost out the door don’t understand the difference between a scientific theory (a valid explanation of a phenomenon based on repeated observable empirical evidence in rigorous, peer-reviewed studies, that’s so consistent that other possibilities are rejected), philosophical and psychological theories (based on rational supports and significant evidence), and a belief system (based on faith or hope). We can’t just discount carefully established scientific theories because we don’t like the idea the way we might pick and choose which bits of the Bible to follow.  But some just don't believe in these distinctions, and they feel that's their right, and I gave up on this one.  For now.

In social science, when we talk about media and how to know what to believe, I tell them, when in doubt, follow the money. If we agree that climate change is caused by human use of fossil fuels, then we should reduce our consumption of luxury goods and conserve energy as much as possible. If we agree that climate change is a natural fluctuation and not caused by our activity, then it’s business as usual. Shop away and drive everywhere and turn up the heat. We have to explore which scenario puts more money in the hands of businesses. Nobody stands to gain financially if we believe that it’s all due to human use, but wealthy, powerful people have so much more to gain financially if we believe that climate change is natural. There is absolutely no financial incentive for anyone to fudge stats in order to make it appear that GHG production created this mess, but there’s a huge incentive for people to pay off scientists to make it appear that climate change is a hoax.

Anyway, the problem with using Mill's philosophy to argue a complex scientific theory is I’d have to display the scientific evidence for my side, and I don’t have that kind of knowledge at my fingertips – nor that kind of time. The reality is, sometimes we just want people to agree already!  And sometimes it's useful if people agree with us - not just for ourselves and our reputation as sagacious debaters, but for them and the world.

Blaise Pascal
So I ditched Mill and offered up Pascal’s Wager for consideration. If we don’t know for sure, then we should place our bets carefully:  If we decrease reliance on fossil fuels and it’s true, the future will be better for people and other living things. But if it’s false, then we’ve got more fossil fuels to last longer and the future will be better. If we do nothing and it’s false, we’ll run out of oil. If we do nothing and it’s true, there will just be some cockroaches left to tell the tale. So if there’s a possibility we can do something to slow down this mess, then we should act on it. There’s a video here that says all that in about nine minutes.

And a student countered with an interesting analogy: If we support legal access to abortion because we value a fully-formed, currently existing life over a potential life, if we're okay with the idea that current lives overrule potential lives, then maybe we should just seize the day and enjoy ourselves to the fullest valuing current populations over potential populations of the future. Why should we sacrifice some fun now for people who don’t even exist yet?

So then I had to get Epictetus and Epicurus and Jesus and Plato involved in the fray, as well as so many others who say something more or less like this: If we want to be happy, we should decrease our desires rather than increasing our stuff. Buying crap and travelling and partaking in other luxuries offer a short-term pleasure that doesn’t pan out in the end. We need to learn to measure well or choose pleasures with prudence in order to have the most pleasurable and virtuous life. Most people don’t give a fig about living virtuously or we wouldn’t be in this mess, but we do care about happiness. So, don’t stop shopping and driving everywhere for the sake of the future, but for your own happiness.

And, it’s not just about people. Some people don’t mind if humanity is destroyed, but for god’s sake save the kittens. For a long time I said this is all really about trying to save our species because the world will be fine without us, echoing Weisman’s book. But now it’s become clearer, as destruction is more palpable, that most mammals will die off, many varieties of plants, and a lot of habitats will be underwater. Mound clarifies in the comments here that hydrogen sulfide will kill almost everything.

So back to Mill,
The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex. 
We just need one more big transition:  to shift from our rampant wastefulness being seen as a necessity of life to a common recognition of the injustice and tyranny inherent in the system.

The whole debate reinforced three things for me:  the planet is screwed; it's good I'm not Queen of the World because I'll totally deny people's rights to free speech and thought whenever it suits me, and teaching is the best job ever.  Here's to the present!  


The Arbourist said...

Interesting article. :)

"BUT this is philosophy, not science, and that’s an ad populum fallacy. It doesn’t matter if a position is a commonly accepted idea, but that it has the most convincing support."

The demarcation between an appeal to authority and an actual argument based on fact can be difficult at times.

I would hesitate to label scientific consensus as an ad populum fallacy. The science has been in on AGW for a long time now, despite what the industry sponsored skepticism says.

"But some just don't believe in these distinctions, and they feel that's their right, and I gave up on this one. For now."

Critical thinking is the basis of what needs to be taught in school. I'm a teacher myself and I am consistently disappointed in how little this most important of all skills is overlooked.

"the planet is screwed; "

Nah :) The planet will be fine; it is just the ability to support human civilization that is rapidly going down hill. The cold embrace of Malthusian ethos is just around the corner. We should be thankful that we live in this quickly closing window of opulence, future generations will not be as lucky.

Marie Snyder said...

Hey Arbourist, I agree in practice that scientific consensus shouldn't fit the ad populum rule, but, from the passage we were studying, 97% agree wasn't going to hold water as my strongest argument.

I struggle with teaching critical thinking, and sometimes get to a point where I start thinking that a certain amount of the ability to look at things critically and rationally is inborn. It often feels like I can only take some kids so far with these skills. Much like any other skill, really. Some just can't be convinced that belief is different than scientific theory in the time I have with them - which I find absolutely shocking. It seems like something they should learn in grade school. But then again, I know a lot of adults who consistently use poor reasoning in their arguments. And, if Harper remains in charge long enough, science could be a thing of the past.

On the planet - I'm not sure it will be fine. Entire ecosystems are being disrupted. Well, it'll still be here as a mass, but it might not have so much in the way of life to it anymore. You're right - we should be thankful it's now and not even 60 years from now. Yikes.