Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Science : A Zone Of Contestation

A quick scan of the Guardian's Comment is Free articles and comments recently has been instructive in showing the shape of debate in Western capitalist societies. Aside from the usual debate on war and the Middle East, hot topic of the last week has been climate change or anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Articles by scientists, environmentalists, green activists and others calling for action on AGW attract a barrage of comments from climate change deniers, contrarians and self-described "Skeptics" (note the 'K'). Likewise, journalists, politicians and professional contrarian commentators are given space on CIF to voice varying degrees of disagreement with what they see as the 'totalitarian' (for which, read majority)green consensus on AGW.

Aside from a limited debate on technical details a good deal of mud is slung in these debates and the nature of to the mud slinging is revealing. The deniers/contrarians chief abuse-de-jour is to go on about climate 'fundamentalists' and green 'religion' (a point laboured to the point of tedium by the very self-satisfied David Cox this week). In return the less temperate of the defenders of AGW analysis and action charge the deniers with being 'anti-science' (usually a favourite of the other side when attacking greens) and basically disingenuous, corporate-backed liars.

Within the prism of AGW argument we can see how science is currently a major field of contestation between different and opposed viewpoints and class interests. It is claimed by both sides in a way reminiscent of historic debates where both sides fought to lay claim to 'true patriotism' or 'sound religion'. Similarly we can see how the term "religious", in the modern secularised West is now a term of abuse akin to the old "witch!" or "commie!" or "fascist!". In a way, this is a sign of progress. The forces of reaction, those defending the rights of the wealthy and privileged to retain their wealth and privilege, have often in the past relied on alliance with the church to cement their common front against egalitarian forces. With a significant section of the right now in thrall to a virulently anti-religious individualist libertarianism, "religious" is now often used as a right wing term of abuse for the left or greens, or even well-meaning liberals. Effectively this weakens the economically right-wing alliance that constructed Thatcherism and its children. Ironically, the free-market right are seemingly oblivious to the very strong impression they give that the free market as cure-all is in itself a faith position rather than something based on scientific observation.

The personal abuse directed at greens in these debates, often including amateur psychologist musings, is a sign of the relative strength of the green position on AGW. In the absence of good arguments our opponents are reduced to ad hominem and nonsense about going back to cave dwelling or the middle ages. This vitriol and hatred is one of the few things uniting that segment of the free market right who have been forced to accept the overwhelming evidence for AGW and the fact that action must be taken on it with the last, muttering, conspiracist remnants of the deniers. Of course the newly-convinced-of-AGW free marketeers filter "what is to be done" through their ideological net and it unsurprisingly comes out as more freedom for capitalists. But they still sing from the same hymn sheet (!) as the deniers in hating greens.

One rather obsessive commentator on Comment Is Free has analyzed the clash over AGW as something from man's "animal" nature - a group exclusivity thing where alpha male types (who maintain their dominance through money and weapons - the historical position of warlords and aristocrats)and those who take their shilling fight against those who seek to conquer power through the power of the word - the power of argument. The poster identifies this as the historical position of priests, philosophers and scientists - the priests bit does in part explain the vehmence of the anti-religious rhetoric deployed against climate change activists. Tempting as this viewpoint is, the simpler and perhaps more othodox view of the dynamic of this debate is that the common pro-market, pro-force, anti-intellectual rhetoric in opposition to pro-political, moralistic, anti-corporate rhetoric is another manifestation of class antagonism. Sections of the middle classes and intelligentsia take sides against the reactionary corporate entities and their apologists and others defend the status quo against the latest threat - and any rationale for change (be it scientific, moral or political) is a threat to the class interests of the corporate elites and those who identify with them. Meanwhile the majority of the population have yet to be heard, or to move.

Of course, the green/left participants in this debate should be wary of moralising and actions which are more to do with individuals' self images than social/environmental/political effectiveness. The critique of the anti-greens has at least a grain of truth in this regard. However, pop-psychological ad hominem does not negate majority scientific opinion or political logic. The deniers and anti-greens need to try harder than that....or preferably concede the argument.

An excellent rundown on the deniers at Grist - their series of pieces on "How To Talk To A Climate Skeptic" here.

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