Still arguing about the facts on climate change?

Geologist Ian Plimer, who has written a book opposing the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with journalist George Monbiot.

But wait a minute. Actually, journalist George Monbiot, who has written a book supporting the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with geologist Ian Plimer.

Does this mean they’ve both backed down? Or does it mean they’ve both courageously stood their ground?

What’s going on?

From one perspective, Plimer is peddling ‘24 carat bafflegab’. From another, Monbiot is preaching a ‘secular religion’ and is the high priest of global warming.

Who’s right? Surely, when it comes to scientific facts, ‘Truth is truth to the end of reckoning’  (Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 5 scene i). Why can’t these people just agree? And why can’t we get to the bottom of why they can’t agree? It’s as though they can’t even agree on what the facts are they’re supposed to be disagreeing about. Each seems to operate as though no matter what is said, the other will twist it to their own advantage because they are acting in bad faith.

If these people would take a look at the claims of Grid-group cultural theory, they would perhaps recognise they are both performing stereotypical roles as spokespeople for two of the four cultural biases the theory proposes. Monbiot is clearly channelling the Egalitarian bias, while Plimer represents the Individualist bias. Why is it that this is so obvious, and yet Monbiot seems to be scratching his head about what it all means? One reason he suggests for the work of climate change ‘denial’ is that people like Plimer are looking for end-of-career fame:

‘Most of the prominent climate change deniers who are not employed solely by the fossil fuel industry have a similar profile: men whose professional careers are about to end or have ended already. Attacking climate science looks like a guaranteed formula for achieving the public recognition they have either lost or never possessed.’

But as he acknowledges, this guess doesn’t explain the editor of the Spectator magazine’s readiness to promote Plimer’s views:

‘Why is he prepared to endorse Ian Plimer’s claims, but not those made by people who contend that the entire canon of lunar science is wrong and the moon is in fact made of green cheese?’

Monbiot can’t really pin the editor Matthew D’Ancona down to his own satisfaction, though he does elicit an acknowledgement that such promotion could be seen as either ‘mischievous’ or ‘deeply immoral and grotesquely irresponsible’. Even the editor doesn’t recognise an obvious explanation, from the Cultural theory perspective – that the Spectator’s main selling point – apart from its sparkling writing and urgent topicality of course, is that it provides an outlet for Individualist positions on all manner of subjects. On this account the Spectator was just waiting for an opportunity to put on its cover a  headline about how we should all stop worrying and be happy. That’s the message. Climate change is just one of many pretexts.

Monbiot doesn’t recognise this:

‘So why climate change? Why is this issue uniquely viewed as fair game by editors who tread carefully around other scientific issues for fear of making idiots of themselves?’

As it happens, climate change isn’t unique at all in this respect. From an Individualist position, science, technology and nature are all basically benign and Cornucopian. Anyone who says otherwise is falling prey to a  ‘culture of fear’ or is the victim of ‘propaganda’. Choose any issue, and Grid-group cultural theory will correctly predict, I am arguing, what the both the Spectator and George Monbiot will say about it.

I’ve  written previously about how Grid-Group Cultural theory provides a parsimonious account of why people on ‘both sides’ of the climate change debate don’t agree. It has in its favour that it doesn’t depend on an assumption of bad faith or stupidity on the part of one side or another. It is perfectly possible to be ‘rational’ and also disagree profoundly, since rationality itself does not have one shape only, but four.

[for the little that it’s worth, I happen to think Monbiot is correct on the debating issue: there is a broadly recognised process for assertaining scientific facts, and it’s not debating. ‘This house believes the speed of light is not what it used to be’. Entertaining perhaps but pointless all the same.]


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