We can have political debate or politicized facts, but we can’t have both

We can have political debate or politicized facts, but we can’t have both September 6, 2012

First the bad news. In The New York Times, Leslie Kaufman reports on how zoos and aquariums are struggling to communicate the facts of climate change in a political climate that considers scientific facts to be matters of partisan dispute:

American zoos and aquariums enjoy a high level of public trust and are ideally positioned to teach.

Yet many managers are fearful of alienating visitors — and denting ticket sales — with tours or wall labels that dwell bleakly on damaged coral reefs, melting ice caps or dying trees.

…  At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Brian Davis, the vice president for education and training, says to this day his institution ensures its guests will not hear the term global warming. Visitors are “very conservative,” he said. “When they hear certain terms, our guests shut down. We’ve seen it happen.”

When people “shut down” in response to certain terms or certain facts, those people are not being “very conservative,” they are, instead, just being anti-fact. Conservatism — even a hyper-partisan conservatism — is about how to respond to facts. Politicizing facts isn’t “conservative” politics, it’s a rejection of the very possibility of politics.

This polar bear is neither liberal nor conservative. It’s just a polar bear. (Photo by Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons.)

In a healthy political climate, people from different political parties or different sides of the debate will argue about how best to respond to the facts. Liberals and conservatives will disagree about that response. Such disagreement may be partisan, heated, angry, vicious and unyielding. It may get personal and uncivil, with red-faced partisans screaming at one another, employing profanity, hyperbole and insult. It may get really nasty.

And all of that is OK.

Such nastiness may be a sub-optimal expression of healthy democracy, but it’s still an expression of healthy democracy. Now matter how heated the argument over how best to respond to the facts, that argument is evidence of a people still capable of self-government.

But when the argument shifts from how to respond to the facts to become an argument over the existence of the facts themselves, then self-government is no longer possible. The news from the zoos suggests that we no longer have a healthy political climate — that our capacity for democracy is ailing.

We all love to see polar bears at zoos and aquariums. They’re beautiful and wicked smart and dangerous and just generally very cool. If we had a healthy democracy, then liberals and conservative could admire those creatures and argue about how best — or even whether — to respond to the shrinking habitats threatening polar bears in a warming Arctic. We would bring different ideas and ideologies to that argument, different visions of the scope and scale and substance of an appropriate response, different notions of which public or private actors ought to be most responsible to address those facts. It would be an argument, a debate, a disagreement.

But we don’t seem to be capable of having that argument. We don’t seem capable of achieving disagreement because, right now, the facts — reality itself — have become partisan and politicized. When the facts themselves are politicized, then politics itself becomes impossible.

That’s bad news for polar bears and bad news for democracy.

But here’s some more encouraging news, from South Carolina. Grist’s Jordan Haedtler reports on local news weathercaster Jim Gandy, “Heroic weatherman talks climate in a red state — and viewers thank him for it“:

In 2011, Gandy partnered with George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and the nonprofit Climate Central to develop a program called Climate Matters, a segment that places his weathercasts in the context of climate change. Gandy also blogs regularly about climate. Broadcasting in South Carolina, Gandy was well aware of the risks. “I’m not from a red state, I’m from a dark red state,” he told us. Like his friend and peer Dan Satterfield, a weathercaster based until recently in Huntsville, Ala., Gandy began speaking out about climate change fully prepared to face backlash from his politically conservative audience.

But a funny thing happened: The backlash never came. Rather than facing an onslaught of angry phone calls, Gandy found that many viewers were fascinated by his reports connecting climate change with their daily lives. His report on climate change’s impact on poison ivy, for instance, received praise from viewers who stopped him on the street to thank him.

… Presenting established science to viewers and broadening the context of weather reporting isn’t just doable — it’s welcome, and sorely needed.

By reporting the facts of climate change, Gandy makes it possible for us to have the political debate over how to respond to those facts. The facts do not settle that debate, they merely allow that debate to begin.

That’s what is vitally important for a healthy democracy — not that the debate is settled one way or the other, and not whether it is conducted with the utmost politeness, just that the debate is taking place at all. (Civility and friendliness are Good Things, of course, and all else being equal, it’s nicer if we’re all nicer. But niceness and honesty are not the same thing, and only the latter is necessary for political debate in a democracy.)

That debate cannot happen if we choose, instead, to consider reality itself as subject to debate. We cannot have political disagreement if we are, instead, disagreeing over facts — if we pretend that the facts are subject to dispute and denial.

Jim Gandy’s example also reminds us that people like to learn the facts. Facts turn out to be immensely practical, useful things. They also tend to be interesting.

The essential facts of climate change due to human activity are beyond dispute. Some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives, and thus we are bound to disagree, intensely, over how best to respond to those facts. That disagreement — how to respond — is the debate we need to be having. That is the debate we would be having, right now, if we were a healthier democracy.

That debate will involve plenty of conflict and confrontation, and moving forward will involve plenty of compromise — as it always does in a democracy. And at every step of the process the argument will continue along the same lines as it always has. If, for example, part of the eventual compromise response involves some sort of carbon tax — an idea now favored by both many reality-based conservatives and liberals — the choice to implement such a carbon tax wouldn’t end the debate.

It would, rather, launch a new round of political debate — a new variation on the old perennial argument between liberals and conservatives. Liberals like me would come to the table with one set of ideas about what other taxes could be offset or abolished with the revenue from this new carbon tax. We’d want to replace existing regressive taxes, like the payroll tax, that fall more heavily on the working class. That’s our thing. Conservatives, on the other hand, might see the revenue from a carbon tax as a substitute for capital gains taxes or corporate taxes that they believe stifle economic growth. That’s their thing. We’d have a big old fight — a very familiar big old fight — over the proper balance between those competing concerns. That fight would likely involve lots of angry shouting, name-calling, derision, huffing and puffing, and all of that would be evidence that we are governing ourselves in a healthy democracy.

And that would be much, much healthier than where we are now.

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  • Daughter

    Just how did Al Gore turn this into a partisan political debate, other than by being a Democrat talking about the issue? And how did he do this for his own benefit? The environment had long been an interest of Gore’s, before he was even VP (he even wrote a book about it).

  • Carstonio

    The fossil fuel companies have stood to benefit far more from stonewalling environmental legislation, which is why they’ve financed the “maverick” self-appointed experts to deliberately throw doubt onto climate change.

  • Gotchaye

    I didn’t see anybody talking about the DNC in other threads here, and what I’ve got to say is relevant to the topic.

    I had a long, wide-ranging argument with a super-conservative friend of mine last night after Clinton’s (fantastic) speech that opened with him being taken aback at just how brazenly the Democrats were lying to the public.  With the media’s help, of course.  And the Republicans just don’t have the guts to play as dirty (this is mostly why he doesn’t like the Republicans; they’re wimps that let the Democrats push them around).

    He’s a smart guy, but these are his facts, and (unconsciously, I think) he was Gish Galloping all over the place in response to my attempts to explain how particular things Clinton said weren’t lies or how particular things Republicans say are.  The sense I get is that the Democrats are so wrong on everything that particular examples of times when they may arguably have something right are pretty much irrelevant (they’re a drop in the bucket of unspecified wrongness).  In short order we were arguing about whether or not Europe’s economic troubles are basically due to socialized health care.

  • sigmabody

     Al Gore took the scientific evidence, and distorted it for his own benefit. For example, he took the (then and still) controversial hypothesis that the observable warming was a result of increased CO2 emissions, and made that the “objective” basis for promoting government programs like carbon credits. This, in turn, was to his direct benefit, as the first and largest provider of said credits. In effect, he took the scientific data, added his own BS, co-mingled the two to fool people into thinking his agenda-driven theory was [equally] supported by factual evidence, then used it to hawk his snake oil. In doing so, he not only turned Global Warming from a scientific area of exploration into a religious partisan minefield, but set back science in public policy for decades.

    Moreover, he did such a good job promoting his religion that many otherwise intelligent and reasonable people got caught up in thinking it was based in something more than agenda-driven fantasy. This, in turn, continues to cause otherwise rational people to made unsubstantiated, dumb assertions in defense of the ideology, and condemn actual scientific analysis with derogatory terminology, such as labeling rational analysis as “climate denial”. It’s not the first the the interjection of religion into public policy has made a complete mess of a situation, and unfortunately it probably won’t be the last.

  • Tricksterson

    That’s probably just confusing him with his father.  On the other hand it shouldn’t be a matter of debate because it’s something that can be corrected in a few minutes by checking wikipedia (or, if one is a Luddite a good, old fashioned hard copy encyclopedia)

  • Tricksterson

    Aye, I remember when “cap and trade” was, if not a conservative, at any rate a libertarian idea.  I first came across it in Reason magazine.  Now one can debate whether it’s a good response to global warming or not, IIRC the EU tried it with shaky results, but at least it was a response but then the Democrats started talking about it and, it instantly became anathema, in fact the simple fact that it was “a European idea” (which it wasn’t) became a reason not to even consider it.

  • Emcee, cubed

    For example, he took the (then and still) controversial
    hypothesis that the observable warming was a result of increased CO2

    Um. For anyone who actually deals with the actual science of climate change, this is not now, and has not for a very long time, been controversial. It is actual fact. The only people who are creating “controversy” over this idea are people who stand to lose something when we try to address the fact, or people who don’t want to acknowledge that they personally are part of the problem, so deny there is a problem. But this is the same “controversy” between Evolution and Creationism.

  • Tricksterson

    My prefered phrase is “like watching a monkey do algebra”.

  • swbarnes2

    For example, he took the (then and still) controversial hypothesis that the observable warming was a result of increased CO2 emissions,

    You are doing denialism wrong.

    It’s  a stone-cold fact that were are taking high energy long carbon chains (trees, coal, gas, oil), breaking them up for their energy, and putting the CO2 into the air.  That’s not controversial.  And it’s just a physical property of CO2 that it is transparent to visible light, and traps heat.  There’s no controversy there.

    Denialists have to deny, but you are denying the totally wrong thing.  You are supposed to say that even if it is warming, and even if that makes West Nile virus endemic to New England, we still shouldn’t do anything about it.

  • sigmabody

    I’m sure I’m not up-to-date on my denialism 101… although to be fair I never claimed to be a denialist. What I will claim is that using a couple specific chemical reactions and physical properties as the sole basis to substantiate a very grand hypothesis about an extremely complex interdependent system such as the ecosystem is akin to saying that the Bible was really written and has real words, therefore it is all 100% factual.

    Your religion isn’t any more (or less) valid than anyone else’s religion, in my opinion, and you’re certainly entitled to it. It’s a testament to the susceptibility of humans to belief systems that you think your religion is “truth” or “fact”, just as many believers in most religions do. As I said, though, your (and others) inability to separate science from religion in this area is really the root cause of the inability to have rational debate about public policy with regard to Global Warming.

  • sigmabody

    I will leave the topic of what is justified by actual scientific research as an exercise for the reader; it’s not hard to figure out, if you’re paying attention. Instead, I’ll offer a layman’s distinction between scientific study and religion, for consideration. The former accepts alternative theories, tests hypotheses, rejects claims without basis, and is open to constant revision as new data becomes available. The latter presents a complete story as irrefutable “fact”, resists attempts at verification, minimizes dissenting viewpoints, and demonizes those who question it.

    I would agree that it is, in effect, the same “controversy” between Evolution and Creationism, although perhaps not as you perceive it.

  • NiceCajun

    Back to the bears:  whether we agree or not, whether we discuss or not, change will happen and in due time there will be no disagreement.  Just lots of folks having to move from the coastal areas and many, if not all, dead bears (and other species)
    Secondly:Intrade, today:Obama 63.7 per centRomney  40.3 per centhahahahahaha heindeedy    hahahaha

  • Joshua

    although to be fair I never claimed to be a denialist. 

    No-one claims to be a denialist, because they’re deluded lying idiots. As here.

  • Julian Elson

    sigmabody writes:

    “[Scientific study] accepts alternative theories, tests hypotheses, rejects claims without basis, and is open to constant revision as new data becomes available.”

    “What I will claim is that using a couple specific chemical reactions and physical properties as the sole basis to substantiate a very grand hypothesis about an extremely complex interdependent system such as the ecosystem is akin to saying that the Bible was really written and has real words, therefore it is all 100% factual.”
    Real scientific challenges to current climate science wouldn’t just say, “well, it’s all a very complex interdependent system.” (Which is basically what you did.) They would actually discuss those complexities: would increased carbon dioxide concentrations lead to more plant growth? Would vaporization of water lead to more cloud cover which could increase the Earth’s albedo? Conversely, real challenges to current climate science might also challenge it from the other side: maybe the current consensus is underestimating the speed of global warming. Maybe the release of methane from tundra will accelerate the process more than climate scientists are accounting for.

    Of course, such challenges and new theories are constantly being incorporated into the corpus of current climate science, so it’s unlikely that some idea beyond the basics of “more CO2 = more radiative forcing” is just being ignored and you’re the first to think of it. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty still (on both sides of current estimates).

    You might plead that you’re not a climate scientist, so you don’t know the details of the challenges to current climate science, but the problem is that every denier post I’ve seen has used a structure similar to yours: don’t say what’s actually wrong with current climate science, just allude to uncertainty and skepticism, attack specific personalities (like Al Gore and Rajendra Pachuari) involved in climate science and/or policy activism.

    You aren’t being scientific just because you say “well maybe P53 doesn’t induce apoptosis in cells with damaged DNA. Let’s be open to alternative theories and the revision as new data becomes available. Apoptosis is a very complex process and there are numerous enzymes with interdependent activating and inhibiting effects in every cell.” You have to show that there’s  evidence against P53 inducing apoptosis in cells with damaged DNA.

  • sigmabody

    I’d agree with almost everything you are saying. The issue, at point, is that in current climate science, there is broad consensus on climate change occurring, and broad disagreement on causation. For the implied causation hypothesis to be valid (ie: that man-made CO2 emissions are a significant factor in climate change), one would need to establish a historical baseline of [cyclical] change, then show statistically-significant variation from the expected variable range established by historical patterns, and posit a causality theory which could be shown to be more plausible than alternative theories (eg: variations in ground cover owing to human construction are radiating more heat into the lower atmosphere than natural ground cover). To the best of published unbiased research, at least that which I have read, the latter two points are far from consensus in the scientific community.

    All that being said, though, that’s not even the root problem (imho). The root problem would be the politicization of the hypothesis, before or absent the scientific data to support it. This has poisoned the water, so to speak, of the public consciousness, especially for those of us not indoctrinated into the religion. Thus, whereas normally a mere majority opinion might be sufficient to establish relative validity, in this case a proponent would need to overcome the hurtle of disbelief that was created the first time the snake oil was pitched. Which brings us to the current state, wherein attempts to engage in rational debate and analysis are typically shouted down (virtually or otherwise, see Joshua’s post for reference), and you have an intractable divide on roughly ideological lines. C’est la vie.

  • one would need to establish a historical baseline of [cyclical] change,
    then show statistically-significant variation from the expected variable
    range established by historical patterns

    Surprise, I saw a chart like this back in the 1970s/early 1980s in a Highlights magazine, when I was a kid.

    Not exactly peer reviewed stuff, but well before any claims of political ‘massaging’ of the CO2 numbers.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Nods* Studies have been going on for decades now. It’s only relatively recently that it went from “yes, this is a thing and we need to stop it” to “it’s a myth perpetrated by liberal fascists to DESTROY CAPITALISM!” I’m not sure how much of a consensus we really need (or, for that matter, fail to already have) before we start at least making precautionary changes to the way we treat the environment.

  • The disagreement about the cause of global warming is not broad, not among people aware of and honestly engaging the basic facts of the situation.  People and organizations who’d stand to lose wealth or power if they accepted those facts have spent a good deal of time and money trying to pretend otherwise.  Find me two or three professional climatologists arguing that the steadily rising temperatures and shrinking ice caps aren’t related to human industrial pollution, two or three climatologists who aren’t on the payroll of a coal company, right-wing think tank, or Koch brother.  

  • arcseconds

    There isn’t broad disagreement amongst the experts on causation.   Details of the causation, yes, but not the principle cause.

    If a plane crashes we consult aircraft engineers; if we’ve abdominal pain, we consult a doctor; if we’ve an idea for a new mobile app we consult a programmer.  If we’ve consulted every doctor in town and they all say it’s bowel cancer, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to our drinking buddy with a lapsed first-aid certificate who tells us tomato juice will fix it.

    Anway, you seem to think that your handwaving about complex systems allows you to ignore the known and well-understood fact that absorbing and radiating substantially more infrared radiation than nitrogen and oxygen is a fundamental physical property of CO2. 

    (It’s so well-understood that it can be demonstrated from first principles.)

    Knowing only this alone entails that if you increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, you will increase the temperature of the planet.

    The temperature of the planet has increased.

    The CO2 content of the atmosphere has increased.

     So CO2 certainly does account for at minimum some of the warming.  Being wrong about that is like being wrong about the earth having a magnetic field or wrong about how refrigerators work.

    In fact, if the planet hadn’t warmed, then we’d have a puzzle on our hands: why, when the atmosphere is absorbing more infrared radiation, hasn’t the earth heated up?

  • Donalbain

    To be fair, the idea of humans causing climate change is something of a contraversial proposition. I mean, on one side you have the scientific academies of most nations, you have the vast majority of scientists operating in the field, you have have a vast number of scientific papers. And equally, on the other hand you have the oil companies.

  • People used to think humans DID induce climate change.

    “The rain follows the plow.”

  • Tricksterson

    I first heard of global warming in the 80s when it was still politically neutral.

  • Donalbain

     You know who was one of the first major western political figures to accept the reality of human caused climate change and the need to mitigate it?

    Margaret Fucking Thatcher.

  • TheFaithfulStone

     Weirdly, I’m going to quasi-defend Bachman and point out that JQ Adams was in fact an ambassador for the Washington administration (and thus the first American ambassador to several different places) and that Washington consistently praised him as one Americas finest young diplomats.

    I don’t think that quite qualifies him as a “founding father” but it isn’t like he wasn’t alive when nation was founded, or that he didn’t have a significant hand in it’s early development.

  • TheFaithfulStone

     Those three words should never be used together.

  • Rizzo

     Nope I’m pretty sure it was grizzlies and the evidence they found was genetic from a while back, not recently.  Not on a regular basis, just when the ice cap melts and they can’t live there. 

  • Lori

    It’s both distressing and comforting, in that “misery loves company” kind of way, to hear someone else describe my experience so exactly. Imagine living with your mom full time and you have my life. 

  • Lori


    If history is just, that person will be considered the #1 enemy of the
    environment, for turning what might have been a rational scientific
    debate into a partisan political mess.  

    What reality were you living in where there was a rational scientific debate, or any real hope for one, before a certain someone came along and screwed it up? It’s not this reality, that’s for sure and I’m curious about what other differences there are between the two. Does your world have shrimp?*

    *Obligatory Buffy reference.

  • AnonymousSam

    Ugh, my sympathies, such as they are. It disturbs me to imagine how life would be like if I still lived with my parents, now that they’ve gone off the deep end after living in Texas and watching Fox News near-continuously.

    The last telephone conversation I had with my mother, she, as a self-proclaimed atheist, argued that she believed Obama was the Antichrist and cited his memetic popularity and unnaturally engaging speech mannerisms as proof.

    “Have you ever listened to him speak, and how people get so into him? Even I do it! It’s just not natural. I swear, Sam, it’s some kind of mind control.”

  • Tricksterson

    If she’s an atheist (is she still?) how can she even believe in Anti-Christ as a valid concept, much less that Obama is it.?

  • AnonymousSam

    I wish I knew, so that I could better debate it. I think she cherry-picks what she wants to believe — she doesn’t believe in organized religion, but UFOs? Atlantis? Merpeople? Anunaki? Reincarnation? All good. Perfectly plausible. Apparently atheism for her just means opposing theism while constructing a worldview that still encompasses the things she can’t grasp about life.

    Which is, at least in theory, something I’m not necessarily opposed to, but it does make her all the harder to approach for a conversation that doesn’t end in her sighing in frustration and uttering the words “I don’t know, Sam,” in that tone which says between the lines, “Why don’t you understand how perfectly logical this is?”

    The most progress I’ve made so far is getting her to stop insisting that evolution is a false theory and that we were created by aliens. She didn’t quite grasp that whole “several billions of years” part of evolution.

  • Has your mother been reading Left Behind? (<_<)

  • AnonymousSam

    Both of us read the series at the same time, actually. So “yes,” but unfortunately, that’s not the entirety of what’s to blame.

  • I also find it curious that even after Huckabee’s totally douchebaggily dismissive statement regarding women’s traumas, confirmed Republicans here haven’t thrown up their hands in utter disgust.

    That could be your sister or mother or girlfriend or wife, for chrissakes. Do you want some asshole telling them they should think of a child conceived via rape as “still someone special”?

  • Lori

    My folks don’t believe that Obama is literally the anti-Christ in the L&J sense. That’s not because they have a less severe case of Fox News induced ridiculousness than your mom does, it’s because their religious beliefs do not include a single, literal anti-Christ in the L&J sense. They do believe that Obama has the “spirit of anti-Christ” in that he is clearly not a Christian and is opposed to The Lord. (I think they’re doing a better job reading their book than L&J do, but that’s really not much comfort.)

  • Robert Martin


  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Lost your job with Big Tobacco, eh?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     I remember seeing political cartoons mocking George Bush SENIOR for his unending ‘Further Study’ food-dragging on global warming. 

    That would’ve been 1988 – 1992.  So, a minimum of TWENTY YEARS AGO.  How much more Further Study do we need before we are allowed to start trying to save the environment?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    argued that she believed Obama was the Antichrist

    “So, you’re voting for him, then?  The Antichrist has to seize power before Jesus can return, after all.”

    (Semi-seriously, WOW.  Unless we can develop a vaccine against Fox News, I fear for the future of humanity.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    First a Koch brother has to realize that there’s more money in saving the environment than in wrecking it.

    I am not at all convinced that that is actually true, which decreases significantly the chances of getting him to realize that it is.