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Motive and Source vs. Content

December 1, 2009
In my recent post on the CRU email hack, I wrote the following about the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

Obviously the motives of CEI are, as always, to detract from the credibility of climate science writ large, but that should not detract from the legitimacy of their core question, which relates to the conduct of public employees who should be accountable to taxpayers.

I also wrote this about the Wall Street Journal:

Whatever you think about climate change, and whatever you think about the motives of the WSJ, I hope that you agree with that point [about further investigation of the conduct of climate scientists].

I’ve been reflecting about the caveats I made in these statements about the motives of a conservative think tank, like CEI, and the credibility of a source like WSJ, which has history of editorials criticizing mainstream views of climate change. Why does it feel necessary to direct attention to what is actually being said, and away from the inferred motives?
These kinds of statements are necessary because so much of the debate over climate change is focused on who you are, and where you come from, rather than the content of the words coming out of your mouth.

A couple of years ago I attended a lecture on Capitol Hill, given by a prominent academic. It goes without saying that this setting is very different from an academic conference. During Q&A nutcases from every end of the political spectrum were very much in evidence, airing conspiracy theories, tales of destruction, and a variety of other far-out “questions,” ostensibly related to the topic of climate change.

In the midst of all this, a man from the right-wing Heritage Foundation came to the microphone, where he calmly and politely asked a question about the difference between information in the IPCC assessment reports, and statements made by Al Gore in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. As far as I’m concerned, this is a legitimate question, deserving of an answer, no matter who is asking it. It was not accompanied by snide remarks, or innuendo. It was very much on topic.

Unfortunately, the fact that this person works for an organization with political views different from her own sent the speaker into an unproductive and, in my view, very unflattering diatribe. She questioned the motives of the audience member, and went on to vilify his employer, refusing to dignify the actual question with a response.

Now, she may have been right about the motives, but what did she accomplish by avoiding the question? Did she convince anyone of anything by so quickly going on the attack? In my view the main outcome of the exchange was to reinforce the perceived boundaries between two camps.

I think that people embroiled in the climate debate are exhausting themselves with the task of trying to keep everyone neatly in two boxes: wreckless evil skeptic deniers, and good responsible worried citizens. Before you talk to someone you have to do some kind of political arithmetic in your head to see which box the person falls into, and the result defines your engagement with that person.

Maybe on Capitol Hill this comes with the territory. But when such a mindset spills into the scientific world, you can expect to get exactly the kind of obstructive behavior demonstrated by the CRU emails.

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