Political Libertarianism, Science Denialism, Philosophy and the likes of James Delingpole

Political Libertarianism, Science Denialism, Philosophy and the likes of James Delingpole June 11, 2013

I am going to look at political libertarianism in this post in the context of morality, ethics and philosophy. This has been brought on by the Any Questions live radio programme on BBC Radio 4 the other day from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales which featured right-wing Conservative,  Telegraph blogger, Climate Change (AGW) denier James Delingpole, Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs,  Owen Paterson MP (Conservative), left wing Labour politician Peter Hain MP, Leader of Plaid Cymru (The Welsh national party), socialist and republican Leanne Wood. Owen Paterson is an amazing choice for Environment Secretary since he appears to pretty much deny climate change (AGW) too.

So, let’s give this context. Delingpole is a fool of a commentator who was schooled by Sir Paul Nurse during a BBC Horizon documentary about science being under attack from media outlets with an axe to grind. Delingpole denies humans as being responsible for climate change and denies much of the science involved. He is a large voice in bringing science into disrepute. I have argued with some of his adoring fans on his blog ad nauseum some time back. Watch this clip to understand (and yes, I want to chop those fingers off). You have to see it to believe it – it is diamond:

His claims have been so roundly debunked as most of you will know. He has the opinion that people with green tendencies are ” yoghurt-weaving yurt-dwellers” and is nothing but derogatory of anyone with left of centre leanings. One of his claims was that the earth has not warmed in the last 17 years. I want to look at this one point to illustrate his naivety and, well, wrongness.

The claim originates with the notion that 1998 was the hottest year on record, and everything since then has been downhill or static. Actually, now 2005 and 2010 have been hotter. We are supposedly plateauing in terms of global warming, and have not shifted in 17 years. As the Guardian reported of relevant scientists:

Dr Richard Allan, reader in Climate Science at the University of Reading: Global warming is not ‘at a standstill’ but does seem to have slowed down since 2000 in comparison to the rapid warming of the world since the 1970s. In fact, consistent with rising greenhouse gases, heat is continuing to build up beneath the ocean surface:

http://www.ncas.ac.uk/index.php/en/climate-science-highlights/284-warming-over-the-last-decade-hidden-below-ocean-surface

This indicates that changes in ocean circulation are in part responsible for the recent slower rate of surface warming. The way the ocean distributes the extra energy trapped by rising greenhouse gases is critical in determining the new Met Office forecasts of global surface temperature over the coming decade and is an area of active research.

These decadal forecasts are very much experimental – they are at the cutting edge of the science and are technically very challenging. The Met Office are being open and transparent by making the forecasts available to allow a proper validation to occur. The Met Office is one of about 10 groups performing these type of forecasts worldwide and all predict a warming over the coming decade. Nothing in their data leads me to think that global warming due to human influence has stopped, or is irrelevant. It hasn’t, and it isn’t.

Prof Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford: Comparing the expected temperature for 2013-2017 with a single exceptionally warm year (1998), as some reports have done, is just daft. 1998 was around 0.2 degrees warmer than the 1996-2000 average, largely thanks to a massive, once-a-century El Nino event. The IPCC predicted a warming of 0.1-0.2 degrees per decade due to human influence back in 2000. That means the one-off impact of that El Nino event was equivalent to about 20 years of the expected background warming trend So, unsurprisingly, 20 years later, expected temperatures have risen so that an average year is now as warm as that exceptionally hot year.

That said, a lot of people (not the IPCC) were claiming, in the run-up to the Copenhagen 2009 conference, that ‘warming was accelerating and it is all worse than we thought’. What has happened since then has demonstrated that it is foolish to extrapolate short-term climate trends. We did see unexpectedly fast warming from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s, but the IPCC, quite correctly, did not suggest this was evidence for acceleration.

While every new year brings in welcome new data to help us rule out the more extreme (good and bad) scenarios for the future, it would be equally silly to interpret what has happened since the early-2000s as evidence that the warming has stopped.

Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London: The current news item that the Met Office now predicts no global warming in the period up to 2017 is based on the latest 5-year forecast run with their new climate model. Such forecasts are at the frontiers of the subject and form part of a research programme in this area in the Met Office and elsewhere, but should not be considered to be predictions.

One interpretation of the forecasts is for little warming from 1998 until 2017. This is consistent with a multi-decadal fluctuation in temperature that presently opposes the continued upward trend. However the two supported one another during the rapid warming in the 1990s and can be expected to do this again in the future, leading to another period of rapid warming. The forecast results also suggest that half the years in the period to 2017 would be expected to give new record global temperatures.

Prof Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London: I despair of the way data such as this is translated as ‘global warming has stopped’! Global mean temperatures – whether measured or predicted – are not the issue. What matters is the energy balance of the planet and the changes that an energy imbalance will drive in the climate system – as well as the consequences for humans.

90% of the energy imbalance enters the ocean and is not visible to the global mean surface temperature value. The continuing rise in sea level demonstrates ongoing energy accumulation in the ocean (as well as a contribution from melting land ice).

Even if the global mean temperature were to remain unchanged, if the geographic patterns of temperature and rainfall change, the consequences will still be potentially severe. We only need to look at what is going on in Australia at this very moment.

And so on. This was in reaction to the Met Office in the UK adjusting warming forecasts down. On the same day that the Met Office confirmed it had adjusted its forecast, the National Climatic Data Center in the US confirmed that 2012 had been the hottest year on record across the 48 contiguous states – a full degree Fahrenheit hotter than the 1998 record. A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance Science 30 November 2012 stated:

“Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively”

The sea appears to be a much more reliable informant of the situation at hand:

Fig 1

And I could go on. You get the picture. The annoying thing is that this guy gets a lot of face time on TV and he confirms skeptic’s beliefs with his cruddery. He has blogs and bloggers who seem to idolise him, such as this mountain of drivel.

Anyway, the main reason for this post wasn’t to look at James Delingpole per se, but to look at what underpins libertarian politics and philosophy.

Libertarianism is often a confused political philosophy, for good reason. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

Libertarianism, in the strict sense, is the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things. In a looser sense, libertarianism is any view that approximates the strict view…. Libertarianism is sometimes identified with the principle that each agent has a right to maximum equal empirical negative liberty, where empirical negative liberty is the absence of forcible interference from other agents when one attempts to do things.

I will take a rather simple view of it as the minimising of state interference. That the person appears to be of paramount importance, rather than the collective. If the person gets it right, the collective will follow. Indeed, this is how capitalism works. The free market will decide. The problem is, it doesn’t decide ethically.

Let’s take, say, ethical products in a supermarket (organic, fair trade etc). Now, when the economy was booming, people had spare cash, and ethical goods were flying off the shelves. People could afford to give a shit; to be moral consumers. But when the recession hit, I, for one, was unable to buy even half of the ethical goods in the supermarket that I used to be able to – they simply no longer stock the range. This is because we are price-driven creatures. The free market prefers profit (low costs) over anything else. Ethics will always lose in a price war. Unless there is regulation. If, say, tungsten light bulbs were phased out through regulation, or farms had to be proportionally organic, or whatever, then everyone is on a level playing field (at least nationally). The free market will only select in ethical goods and services if they are demanded by the individuals. But they won’t generally do this unless they have spare cash and can start thinking ethically. Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Philosophically speaking, only 9.8% of philosophers adhere to a libertarian political view (and that is actually higher than I would have thought). Now, an argumentum ad populum get us nowhere. Just because only less than 1 in 10 of the greatest thinkers in the world (arguably) adhere to a position does not mean it should be discounted. But we do need to ask why it is an extreme minority position. The positions of communitarianism, egalitarianism and ‘other’ are far more popular. Philosophers often base other philosophical disciplines upon their moral philosophy. It is as though all other philosophy supervenes on morality.

There is no surprise, then, that the longer I am involved with philosophy, the more to the left I move. I used to be conservative, many years ago, primarily due to my parents and upbringing – a sort of inherited baggage. When I began to question the world and everything I had learnt of it, I began to move to the left. Part of the realisation that I was becoming left-wing was in the understanding that actually, human rights don’t exist. As in, they don’t have some kind of Platonic realism, existing in some kind of human rights dimension. As a result, we have to craft them from thought, building them up from our moral philosophy. In the belief that all humans are equal, and being a determinist anyway (as you can see form my first book, Free Will?), it is hard to give any other person, or group of people more special privilege than anyone else. We truly are philosophically equal. This requires a massive amount of extra work to set out than a couple of paragraphs in a blog about the topics at hand; suffice to say that, philosophically speaking, a mixture between communitarianism and egalitarianism is what I decree as being morally right. My moral philosophy informs my political philosophy.

In order to defend a position of libertarian political philosophy, or to espouse the extreme versions of capitalism such that the survival of the fittest is always the right way to go about economics, leaving the free market economy to decide things (involving moral and ethical dilemmas), one has to do an awful lot of philosophical contortionism. Basically, selfishness undergirds such positions. The will to have more and be more than those around you is the foundation of such politics, rather than wanting everyone around you to be as good as you, which is the basis of my politics, informed by my philosophy.

It is in this way, therefore, that I really do believe that the left-wing has stronger moral values. This is why, in Ed Clint’s post here on SIN, there is talk that the (religious) right-wing are not funny, and why the right-wing is almost always the butt of political jokes, and the left-wing rarely is. It’s hard to take the piss out of a system which nobly tries to make society better for more people, rather than people who are trying to engineer society to be better for them.

And that is what defines left- as opposed to right-wing politics: left-wing politics has at its core the value the desire to bring everyone in society up to [your] high standard and quality of life. The right, on the other hand, has at its core the notion that one, themselves, needs to be better and have more than those around them. The free market economy depends upon inequality and competitive advantage. And this makes for successful economics, for sure; but there is little or no moral dimension. Morality within the system depends upon it being an attractive ideal for the consumer to demand (within their consumer habits and product consumption). Left-wing ideals, on the other hand, start with a moral position, with morality as a foundation, and move on from there (in economic and societal decisions and systems).

So to return to Delingpole, what he and all other climate denialists are doing is desiring not to have government interference, and desiring not to change their habits. Accepting AGW will force them to accept that humans are to blame and that subsequent action might involve changing (economic) habits. This is where cognitive dissonance kicks in and gets Delingpole and his ilk to have to harmonise these dissonant ideals: 1) that libertarian free market economics is A-OK and that 2) humans are causing global warming which will imply a rejection or changing of 1). This dissonance causes an outright rejection of 2) to favour the core belief.

After this cognitive heuristic kicks in, confirmation bias takes over, meaning that disproportionate positive value is ascribed to ‘evidence’ supporting science denialism whilst disproportionate negative value is ascribed to all of the science defending AGW. Et viola, Delingpole.

But, as Daydreamer1 so beautifully pointed out in his quote, it is not necessary to set 1) and 2) up against each other as such:

It is an irony that the right can be such cowards on this subject – they seem to like thinking of themselves as the strong ones.

It seems that people are always looking for excuses and things to blame that exonerate themselves.

It is quite possible to accept the science of global warming, accept that it is man made, and then go on to talk about the politics of what to do about it. People don’t need to hide behind fabrications to avoid discussing what they actually want to do.

For crying out loud, at least have the fibre to accept the science and then go on to be honest about what you do – or don’t – want to do about it.

—-

My own take on this is:

1) We are causing global warming. Of course we are! Where do people think all the carbon we are producing (which you can work out in theory by assessing industry, or in practice by measuring CO2 (et al) and comparing with figures for atmospheric volumes and carbon sinks etc) is going?! They seem to be arguing that we can put trillions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and it will do nothing. Where is their chemistry, physics, and model for explaining that?

2) The politics and moral decision making that follows is separate from the science. We can accept the science and do nothing. We can accept the science and go for 100% renewables. Both are separate from accepting we are causing it (science can obviously tell us the best way to get to a desired goal, but again it would be us setting the goal). The choice of what to do is precisely that and if people on the right want to go for carbon capture (or whatever) then they should just say that – not pretend that the science is dubious.

3) Future modelling should not be confused with the science confirming AGW. It is very hard to say exactly what will happen. Hopefully our models are becoming more accurate, but saying what sea level rise will be in 70 years is not easy. The problem of modelling future climate in its affect on our lives in different parts of the world should not affect the science confirming that we are causing it. We should never hear ‘ah, its all a load of nonsense because one minute they say sea levels will rise 5m in 100 years and then they say it will be 1.5m’.

So Delingpole and his followers need to understand that there are two different ideas here – the facts and the desires (which can be acted as such irrespective of the facts). In other words, that AGW is happening or not is a different question as to whether we do anything about it. But the psychology of such people is too plain to see, and his TV appearances are too cringeworthy to watch as a result.

The issue, then, is about whether such libertarians are merely so because they effectively want the world to allow them to do what they want. For this is the real basis of such a political view. It is, really, pure selfishness, since the needs of the individual are more important than the needs of the masses. Once we understand this, then, such science denialist behaviours are contextualised and understood. One big argument from desire.

I will leave you with this, the big contradiction of politics.

Take all the libertarians in politics. How many of them will want rules (government interference) to limit gay marriage? To make Bible reading and prayer compulsory in school? The libertarians are all about small government when it comes to economics, but when it comes to morality and societal and social behaviour – the heavy hand of the law! Of course, the left are the antithesis – heavy regulation in the economy to make it fair; let people do what they want in the confines of the home!

And this is the pragmatic contradiction of politics.

Another interesting final point (!). I wonder how many libertarians are vegetarians or vegans. Now think about this. Let us assume that vegetarianism is the height of self-ownership and morality. One is empowering themselves to define their morality through their own body and dietary behaviour. It is difficult to argue that eating meat, causing the suffering of millions or billions of animals worldwide, is more ethical than being a vegetarian. And yet I bet that there are hardly any vegetarian libertarians. The correlation is vitally important. It bespeaks a natural tendency to be self-centred, self-serving and less moral. The wants of the individual are more important than the needs of the collective (including animals).

Food for thought.

[UPDATE] – In the comments I have rightfully been accused of strawmanning true political libertarianism. This is true. True libertarians end up being atheists, as Ayn Rand was. But many self-proclaimed libertarians are Christians of the Republican slant who advocate prayer in schools, laws against gay marriage and what have you. As I replied:

I actually agree that I have not used, which is why I declared it a simple definition of, particularly strictly defined libertarianism as you espouse. In this way, I am building up a straw man of true and honest libertarianism, and I will adjust the OP accordingly.

The simple fact is that a lot of Americans self-identify as libertarians but, for the reasons mentioned, they really are not. They are economic libertarians demanding lower taxes, but not social libertarians who fight for the separation of church and state, allow for gay marriage and so on. So I apologise for any misconstrual.

There are some interesting issue though, such as prayer in school, abortions and so on.

My main point sort of aligns with this quote:

“Sometime in the 1970s James Buckley, the brother of Wm. F. Buckley, spoke at the Borah Symposium. When he called himself a “Christian libertarian,” my immediate response was that this phrase is an oxymoron. To put the contradiction as concisely as possible: libertarians affirm the absolute sovereignty of the self, while orthodox Christians believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. This is why consistent libertarians such Ayn Rand and her followers are atheists.

This brings us to a delicious irony. Doug Wilson and Doug Jones have attacked everything modern, liberal, and secular, and yet libertarianism is one of the most dramatic expressions of these qualities. Indeed, libertarianism, with is emphasis on free market economics and personal liberty is the most radical movement out of classical liberalism. Morphing the fraternite of the French Revolution’s motto as “community,” one can say while the contemporary conservatives emphasize community, the liberal focuses on equality, and the libertarian affirms liberty exclusively. Libertarians and anarchists, their close associates, are the true revolutionaries of the modern age.

But let us return to savor the irony of professed libertarians in the fold of Christ Church. Wilson’s view of the world is premodern and illiberal. He rejects the individualism that classical liberalism celebrates and fosters in the social and personal arenas. Wilson has a premodern view of the self as a subordinate part of a greater whole. The “federal husband” and theocrat demands absolute obedience and tolerates no personal autonomy, the most important element of libertarianism. Wilson rejects the formal equality that all liberal democracies guarantee for their citizens. He also rejects the unfettered personal liberties that libertarians hold dear. Specifically, following the Southern Agrarians, he condemns capitalist economics as modernist and unbiblical…

The Christian libertarian rejects governmental regulations by saying that God is the only authority to which they can submit. Consistent libertarians, however, argue that there can be no submission to any authority except individual conscience. They also maintain that those who live at the government’s largess develop bad habits of dependency that undermine personal initiative and integrity. The Christian libertarian cannot say that dependency is healthy in religion, but turn around to say that the same dependency undermines personal initiative in society. As Wilson himself once taught his UI students, there must be a “unity to truth” what holds in one sphere holds in all others.”  –  The Uneasy And Contradictory Alliance Between Libertarianism And Christianity, Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho

So there is certainly an issue when it comes to properly defining libertarianism within the context of popular claims of libertarianism within the context of the religious right in the US.

I hope this clears up a few things.


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  • Andy_Schueler

    The issue, then, is about whether such libertarians are merely so because they effectively want the world to allow them to do what they want. For this is the real basis of such a political view. It is, really, pure selfishness, since the needs of the individual are more important than the needs of the masses.

    They usually argue that everyone benefits from a laissez-faire approach to economic policies – Reagonomics / trickle-down economy – if we just let rich people do whatever they want, their success and the wealth that comes with it translates to more investments, more jobs and higher salaries. This is complete Bullshit and has been thoroughly debunked, but millions of Americans continue to believe it.
    This is a very interesting example for how you can manipulate the way people think by your choice of words – the word “socialism” for example has completely lost it´s original meaning in US-american political discourse, and is now essentially a synonym for “disagreeing with Reagonomics and being at least as evil as Hitler”. And just by attaching the word “socialism” to ideas, even if those ideas have literally nothing whatsoever to do with socialism, you can still evoke negative emotions towards this idea (works of course particularly well with people that are old enough to have experienced the cold war). In the same way, US conservatives would never refer to a rich person as “rich person” or “millionaire / billionaire”, they will always use the word “job creator” (even if the rich dude in question got rich by destroying jobs or outsourcing american jobs). By choosing the right words, you can easily sell a transparently stupid idea to the masses – that´s what O´Reilly, Limbaugh, Beck and co. do.

  • Patrick

    “Take all the libertarians in politics. How many of them will want rules (government interference) to limit gay marriage? To make Bible reading and prayer compulsory in school? The libertarians are all about small government when it comes to economics, but when it comes to morality and societal and social behaviour – the heavy hand of the law!”

    That is the antithesis of libertarianism. I recommend that you look at the platform of the US Libertarian Party — we support marriage equality and the separation of church and state.

    Whatever you’re describing by the term “libertarian” is not libertarian.

    • I actually agree that I have not used, which is why I declared it a simple definition of, particularly strictly defined libertarianism as you espouse. In this way, I am building up a straw man of true and honest libertarianism, and I will adjust the OP accordingly.

      The simple fact is that a lot of Americans self-identify as libertarians but, for the reasons mentioned, they really are not. They are economic libertarians demanding lower taxes, but not social libertarians who fight for the separation of church and state, allow for gay marriage and so on. So I apologise for any misconstrual.

      There are some interesting issue though, such as prayer in school, abortions and so on.

      My main point sort of aligns with this quote:

      “Sometime in the 1970s James Buckley, the brother of Wm. F. Buckley, spoke at the Borah Symposium. When he called himself a “Christian libertarian,” my immediate response was that this phrase is an oxymoron. To put the contradiction as concisely as possible: libertarians affirm the absolute sovereignty of the self, while orthodox Christians believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. This is why consistent libertarians such Ayn Rand and her followers are atheists.

      This brings us to a delicious irony. Doug Wilson and Doug Jones have attacked everything modern, liberal, and secular, and yet libertarianism is one of the most dramatic expressions of these qualities. Indeed, libertarianism, with is emphasis on free market economics and personal liberty is the most radical movement out of classical liberalism. Morphing the fraternite of the French Revolution’s motto as “community,” one can say while the contemporary conservatives emphasize community, the liberal focuses on equality, and the libertarian affirms liberty exclusively. Libertarians and anarchists, their close associates, are the true revolutionaries of the modern age.

      But let us return to savor the irony of professed libertarians in the fold of Christ Church. Wilson’s view of the world is premodern and illiberal. He rejects the individualism that classical liberalism celebrates and fosters in the social and personal arenas. Wilson has a premodern view of the self as a subordinate part of a greater whole. The “federal husband” and theocrat demands absolute obedience and tolerates no personal autonomy, the most important element of libertarianism. Wilson rejects the formal equality that all liberal democracies guarantee for their citizens. He also rejects the unfettered personal liberties that libertarians hold dear. Specifically, following the Southern Agrarians, he condemns capitalist economics as modernist and unbiblical…

      The Christian libertarian rejects governmental regulations by saying that God is the only authority to which they can submit. Consistent libertarians, however, argue that there can be no submission to any authority except individual conscience. They also maintain that those who live at the government’s largess develop bad habits of dependency that undermine personal initiative and integrity. The Christian libertarian cannot say that dependency is healthy in religion, but turn around to say that the same dependency undermines personal initiative in society. As Wilson himself once taught his UI students, there must be a “unity to truth” what holds in one sphere holds in all others.”

      So there is certainly an issue when it comes to properly defining libertarianism within the context of popular claims of libertarianism within the context of the religious right in the US.

  • Peter

    It’s not hard to refute the arguments of climate change denying commentators such as James Delingpole. Cherry picking an unusually hot year in the recent past to start your series is a sure-fire way to conflate any trend in temperatures with regression to the mean, so as you point out the argument they make that global warming has ‘stopped’ or ‘slowed down’ since 1998 is preposterous. There are only 3 or 4 more scientific assertions they typically make, and it’s not difficult to see why they are similarly ridiculous.

    But this just makes things all the more frustrating. I haven’t listened to the episode of Any Questions but I think it’s likely that whatever Delingpole said about the science, it was met with some feeble-sounding appeal to AGW being the majority view of climate scientists – and not skewered for the poor reasoning it represents. He and others typically get away with their claims because their interlocutors on the TV or radio don’t put the effort into learning how to respond to them. The interview with Paul Nurse was an important exception – there need to be more of them!

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