When Satire and Science Speak Inconvenient Truths

John O'Sullivan20 Aug, 2020 7 Min Read
Everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Just lately two very different people—one a German satirist, the other an American Nobel Prize-winning scientist—have fallen afoul of those concerned citizens who have taken on the unpaid role of “Censors to Prevent the Apocalypse.” And without your having any more information than that, gentle reader, you know that they have done so on the topic of climate change.

Let’s look at the satirist first. Dieter Nuhr is a well-known comedian who, presumably because of his public profile as a scourge of left and right impartially, was invited to contribute a statement to a public information campaign of the German Research Foundation about its work. That statement ran as follows on the website No Tricks Zone:

Knowledge does not mean you are 100% sure, but that you have enough facts to have a reasoned opinion. But many people are offended when scientists change their mind: That is normal! Science is just THAT the opinion changes when the facts change. This is because science is not a doctrine of salvation, not a religion that proclaims absolute truths. And those who constantly shout, “Follow science!” have obviously not understood this. Science does not know everything, but it is the only reasonable knowledge base we have. That is why it is so important.

If we want to classify it, that’s a defense of truth, science, and freedom all in one. It’s not the most eloquent of such defenses, but it covers a lot of ground in few words and it’s admirably clear. Score one for the satirists here. Almost inevitably therefore it provoked an outpouring of hostile criticism from the organized twitter mobs which don’t usually know a great deal but which do seem to have a reliable instinct when one of their idols or shibboleths is being impermissibly doubted. In response to these attacks the German Research Foundation, fearing damage to its reputation, did the usual thing and took Nuhr’s statement down.

The Research Foundation obviously didn’t know its man. Nuhr responded to his defenestration with a very powerful defense of freedom of thought and inquiry in society and of diversity of opinion in science in particular. In it he was unsparing in his criticism of the Foundation for its surrender.

That strong response evoked an even larger volume of external criticism of the Foundation for its loss of nerve, together with an internal serious reconsideration of all the issues raised by the banning of Nuhr. Within a week it issued an apology of the handsomest sort to Nuhr and reinstated his original statement on its site, saying “The DFG expressly regrets that the statement by Dieter Nuhr was taken hastily from the website of the online campaign #forknowledge.” (Not my Boldness.)

And—you can’t fault the Germans for not being thorough—it went on to connect that error with a growing culture of groupthink and particular orthodoxies in the universities, scientific institutions, and other centers of intellectual discussion, and to pledge to lead a campaign of resistance to this culture in the interests of genuine science and free inquiry.

That strong promise of leadership is both welcome and necessary in today’s world. It should be chastening to us, however, that only a few decades ago such a statement would have seemed a string of nice platitudes because no one, except perhaps a few cranks, would have considered advancing the opposite opinion. Some distinguished Marxist historians in Cambridge, for instance, submitted their academic work to communist party committees for pre-publication approval.

What happened to change the intellectual climate not only in Germany but throughout the entire West in this authoritarian direction?

Mr. Nuhr in his response suggested that a Science that outlawed the competition of ideas was turning—or had already turned—into a religion. If religion is a body of beliefs that denies the possibility of its own falsification, then his criticism is acute and correct.

My own tentative sense of the matter, however, is that this is a late stage in climate alarmism. Before it developed religious certitudes, the dogmas of global warming and climate change had morphed into a branch of politics. That is to say, that they were seen as “convenient truths” (h/t to former Vice-President Gore) because they seemed to justify, indeed require, the extension of state power and regulation on a world scale in order—to employ the cant phrase—to deal with global problems.

Once adopted by the statist side of the political spectrum (which was running out of good reasons for increasing its power over people), this convenient "truth" gave funds and prestige to those scientists, economists, and politicians who embraced and propagated it. And because there are some—more in science than in politics—who doubted its doctrines and disputed them, the science of climate change became a political issue everywhere.

That analysis doesn’t mean that its doctrines are false. But it does mean that like every other scientific proposition, they should be treated with a proper skepticism, and if seemingly well-founded on the evidence so far, treated as provisionally true unless and until falsified by subsequent events. After all, they may prove to be convenient falsehoods or timely errors. When the Blair government ordered Gore’s movie on climate change to be shown in schools, a judge ruled that it would have to be accompanied by a corrective point of view since some of its inconvenient truths weren’t actually true.

Something to watch for, then, is when the tone of commentary on some aspect of climate policy changes from the dry, detached, scientific kind to the passionate committed political sort. And that’s where the Nobel Prize-winning American economist comes in.

William D. Nordhaus is an American economist, educated at Cambridge, MIT, and Yale, who at present holds the Stirling Professorship of Economics at Yale, and who for some years has devoted himself to work on climate change and economic modelling. He won his Nobel Prize for his work developing the so-called Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model (NICE) which is essentially a cost-benefit analysis designed to tell us what are the costs of particular changes in the climate, the benefits of policies designed to mitigate or adapt to them, and the trade-offs between the two.

It’s a great deal more complex than that, of course, but the usefulness and reliability of DICE are demonstrated by the fact that Nordhaus’s work is repeatedly cited by scientists and other economists of all opinions in their work. That’s made easier because Nordhaus himself holds moderate opinions on climate policy, endorsing such policies as a carbon tax and tariffs on countries that refuse to follow the Paris Agreement. And though his work can be disputed, no one has yet found serious technical errors in it.

All of a sudden, however, he’s coming under attack from those in science and economics on the alarmist end of the climate spectrum. As is pointed out by Benjamin Zycher, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, in a recent monograph, these attacks are quite severe without being based on anything like a discovery of economic errors by Nordhaus. In fact, they seem to arise from annoyance that Nordhaus’s cost-benefit analysis, if accurately applied to their favored climate policies such as ending the use of fossil fuels by the end of this century, would show many heavy costs and incommensurately low benefits.

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That irritation is glaringly evident in the judgment of Marlow Hoode that “leading scientists and economists, however, say there is [in addition to corrupt leaders, the rich, etc.] another impediment to climate action that merits closer scrutiny: the profoundly influential work of 2018 Nobel economics laureate William J. Nordhaus.” (His middle initial is in fact D.) Among other leading scientists and economists, for instance, Gernot Wagner of New York University is quoted as arguing: “If [Nordhaus] had won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago, it would have helped climate policy. But the fact that he won it two years ago is, in many ways, a step back.” Similarly, Joseph Stiglitz, another Nobel Prize-winner, asserts that DICE is “dangerous because we don’t have another planet we can go to if we mess this up. The message [that Nordhaus has] been conveying is foolhardy.”

Nordhaus might be wrong, of course, and Zycher has his own criticisms of him. He has responded to some criticisms, conceding they’re “half right,” but he defends the main body of the work that won him the Nobel Prize. His modest concession can’t satisfy critics because it implies that a careful cost-benefit analysis is still heavily negative towards extreme climate alarmism (“we don’t have another planet”) that mandates net-zero carbon emissions or banning fossil fuels. And since they have failed to show that DICE is flawed, the logic of their criticisms is that Nordhaus is an obstacle to their climate alarmism because he’s shown that it’s either wrong or greatly exaggerated.

Look out, therefore, for still more criticisms of the distinguished Yale professor, especially if he continues to defend himself and DICE with the determination of a German satirist. For such courage will certainly be required of those who doubt either general or particular aspects of climate alarmism. Out there in the obscurity of the academic jungle, the drums are beating out the message that there can be no exceptions to observance of the tribal lays. As picked up and transmitted by the vigilant website WattsUpWithThat?, here are two Edge Hill University academics, Psychology Professor Geoff Beattie and Education Research Fellow Laura McGuire, advising us on how to ensure that the people are inspired to love climate alarmism:

[T]o prevent optimism bias, we also need to avoid presenting “both sides of the argument” in the messaging – the science tells us that there’s only one side. There also needs to be a clear argument as to why recommended, sustainable behaviours will work (establishing a different sort of confirmation bias).

We also need everyone to get the message, not just some groups – that’s an important lesson from COVID-19. There can be no (apparent) exceptions when it comes to climate change.

Let me concede that our two Edge Hill academics are being refreshingly candid. They’re telling us: we know what’s right; we’re going to ensure that you accept our view on climate change and policy; and we won’t do so by rational persuasion either, but by limiting your knowledge on the matter in question and  getting under your psychological guard to smuggle our view into your mind.

I hope a good many people get to read about their strategy—which strikes me as neither liberal or democratic—but I’m not as alarmed as I might be by it. I don’t believe that human beings can be “conditioned” like Pavlov’s dogs or Orwell’s Outer Party members because we are self-conscious animals who reflect on ourselves and our own thinking. That’s why people can change religions, political parties, and even scientific views.

That said, our Edge Hill scientists are clearly hard cases. So I ask them to reflect on this passage from Dieter Nuhr’s first response to the German Research Foundation cited above:

I find the phrase “Follow science” questionable because it suggests that there is one, untouchable opinion and solution strategy for climate change, because this way science is declared a narrative of redemption. That is the opposite of science.

There are different scenarios and different solution strategies not only among the population but also among climate scientists. It is even a basic condition of free research that different theses are allowed and discussed. This is what happens in science. In the public, however, diversity of opinion is increasingly actively suppressed by denunciation. Individual groups proclaim inviolable truths, claim that science is on their side and accordingly treat critical thinkers as heretics, then lump them together with madmen and conspiracy theorists and try to discredit them. That is Dark Ages and frightening.

To Nuhr, I can only regret that neither Dryden nor Pope is still around to celebrate his admirable and perhaps historically significant defeat of modern obscurantism in appropriate terms. So here’s a contribution from my own Imatitive Muse:

Thus, Science, Reason, Freedom leave the Stage/ Owning their Debt to Satire’s witty Rage.

John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

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