It’s Only Common Sense

From The New Criterion

Dr Johnson

Dr Johnson famously said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel and so unwittingly guaranteed maximum frustration to the few people who, 200-odd years later, were able to understand his words in the face of their constant misapplication. Common sense ought to be enough to tell us, even if Boswell had not done so in reporting the remark, that Johnson could not have meant patriotism was a bad thing, still less that patriots were ipso facto scoundrels. He meant, in the context of the gathering rebellion of Britain’s North American colonies, that those who justified their disloyalty to their king on the grounds of a higher loyalty to their country were canting rascals only seeking some appropriately grand-sounding excuse to justify rebellion and treachery against their lawful and legitimate sovereign. The equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s dictum today would be to say that environmentalism or other sorts of one-worldism are the last refuge of the scoundrel because they, too, involve the denial of an organic and socially derived loyalty — in our case, patriotism itself — in favor of a supposedly higher sort of loyalty derived from one’s own processes of ratiocination.

Except, of course, that it would rightly be considered uncivil to call environmentalists unpatriotic, let alone scoundrels. Oddly, this canon of politeness doesn’t seem to work in the other direction, since environmentalists are licenced by the unwritten rules of discourse to apply to those who oppose them not only scoundrelly or unpatriotic epithets but even worse ones. That seems to be just one of the lessons to be derived from the leaked e-mails of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the media furore which has accompanied their publication. As Jonah Goldberg and Mark Steyn both noticed, the now-notorious “climate change e-mails” were a journalistic as well as a scientific scandal.

Mr Goldberg wrote that “There’s always been a lot of talk about [how] the legacy media are a bunch of gatekeepers who work to give you the news you need. I’m beginning to wonder if the metaphor has the guards on the wrong side of the gate. These days the press seems more interested in guarding you from the news they don’t want you to know.” Mr Steyn pointed to the spectacular inappropriateness of citing — as Mr Ed Begley Jr., among others, has done — “peer review” as the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on the man-made climate change that the e-mails had called into question. It was precisely the demonstration they gave that the peer review process, at least in the case of global warming, had been corrupted which made the e-mails the sensational news they were, or ought to have been. Peer review had turned out to be nothing but another name for intellectual fashion — an excuse for those in the politically fashionable warmist club to sneer at those who remained outside it and to manipulate data in order to discredit them at all costs.

Obviously, it wasn’t by chance that so many journalists and scientists found themselves on the same side of this attempt to suppress information, nor that they were joined there by the likes of Senator Barbara Boxer, who railed in public about the “theft” of the e-mails rather than their content. What do you suppose are the odds that, if that content had had to do with matters of national security, the whistle-blower in question would have been characterized by her as a thief or those who published his revelations as anything but heroes? The pretense of science and journalism alike to intellectual disinterestedness and non-partisanship has now, in the age of Obama, also spread to politicians seeking to put themselves, as Senator Harry Reid did a propos of health care reform, “on the right side of history” — which is all by itself the best illustration of the absurdity of the conceit.

One reason for this sort of arguing is that a more legitimate sort isn’t available to us. Everybody, all the punditry and all their admirers, has an opinion on climate change — is it real? is it caused by man? does it matter? is the consensus of experts right or not? There is no foundation in knowledge for any of these opinions, except where the opiner is himself a climate scientist. But the rest of us seem to imagine we have a right to have an opinion on things we know nothing about — or nothing except what other pundits and would-be pundits with a similar absence of knowledge of the subject have said. Yet in a way we, and I include myself here, must have a point, since we do have a right to an opinion on the practicalities of climate change in a democratic society — that is if the EPA will continue to allow us to be a democratic society instead of claiming, as it has lately tried to do, the absolute power to regulate our lives by naming CO2 as a pollutant.

That conversation, however, must be carried on for the most part in the context of cost-benefit analysis, as the alleged “climate skeptic” Bjorn Lomborg has tried to do. It is because this kind of political argument nowadays sits less comfortably in the mouth of progressives than the quasi-moral one from the supposed indisputability of “science” that the climate-change debate has taken the strident and even hysterical turn it has. The last refuge of scoundrels on the subject of climate change, as on health care reform and an increasing number of other subjects today, is to argue not with the merits or otherwise of one’s opponents’ case but with the claim that the opponents themselves are stupid or insane or corrupt and so can have nothing to say of any interest.

Here, for example is Mr David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post who writes that global warming, “is a global problem, with no obvious villains and no one-step solutions, whose worst effects seem as if they’ll befall somebody else at some other time” — as, indeed, they must do, if they occur at all.

In short, if someone set out to draw up a problem that people would not care about, one expert on human behavior said, it would look exactly like climate change. That’s the upshot of a spate of new research that tries to explain stalled U.S. efforts to combat greenhouse-gas emissions by putting the country on the couch. Polls — including one last month — indicate that a sizable, though shrinking, number of Americans believe climate change is happening. Most of those people think it is a “serious” problem. So, rationally, shouldn’t they be doing more to fight it? The problem, many psychologists say, is the “rationally.”

In other words, anyone who opposes anything that such psychologists and other experts want him to do is “irrational.” Irrational denial of reality for self-interested reasons is something you would expect from a drunk or a drug user unwilling to give up his harmful addiction. It’s a mental infirmity and so a species of illness or insanity.

So much for the insanity of global-warming “deniers” — a word which, in the context of today’s pop psychology, automatically implies mental unbalance. As for the corruption, George Monbiot in The Guardian tells us of his own research into one of the deniers’ secret plans of resistance against what Mr Monbiot regards as the infallible science of global warming:

US coal companies sought to persuade people that the science is uncertain. It listed the two social groups it was trying to reach — “Target 1: Older, less educated males”; “Target 2: Younger, lower income women” — and the methods by which it would reach them. One of its findings was that “members of the public feel more confident expressing opinions on others’ motivations and tactics than they do expressing opinions on scientific issues”. Remember this the next time you hear people claiming that climate scientists are only in it for the money, or that environmentalists are trying to create a communist world government: these ideas were devised and broadcast by energy companies. The people who inform me, apparently without irony, that “your article is an ad hominem attack, you four-eyed, big-nosed, commie sack of s***”, or “you scaremongers will destroy the entire world economy and take us back to the Stone Age”, are the unwitting recruits of campaigns they have never heard of.

Yes, quite. All the same, is there any chance that these dupes could be right about the scaremongers’ destroying the entire world economy and taking us back to the Stone Age? Mr Monbiot appears not to know. At any rate, he doesn’t care to say. He thinks it is enough to discredit the argument to say that it was invented by a coal company. Talk about “expressing opinions on others’ motivations and tactics”! But even coal companies, or those who are paid by them, can sometimes be right. Not being a climate scientist myself, I don’t mind admitting that I, too, tend to “feel more confident expressing opinions on others’ motivations and tactics” than I do about science. Obviously, it would be better if I could argue on the strength of a Ph.D. in geophysics or meteorology, but that doesn’t mean that motivations and tactics are irrelevant either. I wouldn’t begin to know whether or not the arguments for anthropogenic global-warming are as airtight as Mr Monbiot and the other true believing warmists tell us they are, but I do know that some of them, at least, have put themselves into a rather weak position to say, as they do say, “trust us, because we know.”

That scientists, whose work is so largely subsidized by taxpayers, have interests just as coal-companies do should go without saying. Once again, it is just common sense. Yet to Mr Monbiot and others of his persuasion it is not only not said, it not even considered. Scientific disinterestedness is an article of faith with them. The rest of us are hardly likely to be shocked to learn that scientists are not invariably less motivated than other people by their own self-interest and amour propre, or more unwilling to sacrifice these things to a disinterested commitment to experimental truth. Nor should we wonder that they don’t understand the E. Anglian E-mails as a question not of science but of character. They tell us that we should trust them because they are right, because they know better, not because they have shown themselves worthy of trust. On the contrary, they have shown that scientific integrity is held hostage to academic politics and political academics. As one D.W. Harding of Gullane, E Lothian wrote in a Letter to the Editor of The Times of London,

the implication of the University of East Anglia e-mail affair. . . that not only might scientific evidence be manipulated to fit the preferred outcome but that dubious tactics might be deployed to discredit or suppress contrary evidence, will hardly occasion surprise among seasoned academics. The much vaunted peer review system is predisposed to favour research and opinion that is acceptable to the academic establishment, and in the pursuit of research funding or the publicity of publication there is no reason to suppose that scientists or academics will conduct themselves with any greater integrity than we might expect of bankers or politicians.

Moreover, they demonstrate their slipperiness by skating over the fact that, however certain the arguments in favor of man-made climate change, the arguments in favor of the political solutions proposed by the most fervent of the warmists, all involving a cost of trillions to the world economy, are very much less conclusive. There is also an element of character, or lack of it, involved in the fact that these scientific paragons are so seldom able to make their own arguments without impugning the “motivations and tactics” of their opponents. Under the circumstances, no one with any common sense would be eager to open his wallet to such people’s repeated assurances that we can trust them to know what’s best for us, whatever may be the truth of climate change.

The increased pace with which debate is being cut off by the moralization of political differences is, as I have mentioned before, one of the features of our time and is helped along by both left and right — but especially left. Coincidentally with the big climate-change debate at the end of 2009, the Obama administration and its willing helpers in the media were at the same time assuring us that we were wrong to hold on to the common sense notion that having the government subsidize health insurance for millions of the uninsured, so massively increasing the demand for health care without doing anything to increase the supply, might have the effect of making health care costs go up. Oh, no! Once again, na ve common sense just didn’t cut it, and we were called upon to trust people who, it must be admitted, are much cleverer than we are and who tell us that the laws of economics do not apply in this case. Well, of course, if the New York Times says so. . . Here is an excerpt from that paper’s editorial titled “Can We Afford It?”

Republican critics have a fiercely argued list of reasons to oppose health care reform. One that is resonating is that the nation cannot afford in tough economic times to add a new trillion-dollar health care entitlement. We understand why Americans may be skittish, but the argument is at best disingenuous and at worst a flat misrepresentation. Over the next two decades, the pending bills would actually reduce deficits by a small amount and reforms in how medical care is delivered and paid for — begun now on a small scale — could significantly reduce future deficits.

Yet common sense tells me that it was no coincidence these are the same progressive-minded people who have been telling us that disaster will ensue for the whole planet if we don’t disregard our na vely commonsensical skepticism and radically change our lives for the worse, limit the possibilities of economic growth for everybody and impose massive new costs on energy producers and thus on ordinary consumers. Common sense takes note of this claim while not giving up the skepticism that tells us it may be overstated. In the same way, common sense tells us it cannot be true that government run health care will save us money, even if it costs less than we fear. There too, the characteristically overstated claims of a moralized debate are likely to be at work. Common sense knows how much may be accomplished by sophistry in alliance with self-interest and declines to be stampeded into precipitate action.

No wonder, then, that common sense itself is coming under attack, and by none other than Damon Linker in “Against Common Sense,” appropriately published in The New Republic. Now Mr Linker is himself so lacking in common sense that he once wrote a whole book to alert the world to the dangers of “theocracy” in America, the most secular nation in the history of the world. “The fact,” he writes in his latest alarmist tract — thus making good use of the left’s new and very useful definition of “fact” as “what I think” — “The fact is that the right’s appeal to common sense is nonsense. Unfortunately, though, it is a form of nonsense with deep roots in the American past and a very long history of political potency. Whether it continues to prove effective in the future will depend in no small measure on how cogently the rest of America responds.” As with the “theocons,” it seems, the nation is once again in peril, this time from too much common sense, an aversion to which puts Mr Linker, oddly, on the side of Dr Johnson against the American Revolution — but for what might seem, even to Johnson, the less than compelling reason that the author of Common Sense was for it. Well golly, common sense might say, even Tom Paine (like a coal company) can be right once in a while!

All Mr Linker succeeds in showing is that people have always wanted to make greater claims for common sense than common sense itself will admit. But that’s not the fault of common sense! It does not and does not claim to give you the answer to such questions as, say, the existence of God or the nature of sin or the truth of the evolutionary hypothesis — or the rights and wrongs of colonial rebellions, for that matter — but what it is good for remains in spite of all that it is not good for.

When I was a teacher, a mathematician colleague explained to me what was wrong with allowing children to use calculators indiscriminately. It was this. If they punched in two plus two but hit a wrong button somewhere and got 42.63647, without the experience of doing a lot of arithmetic in their heads, they had not the basic experience to tell them that this could not be the right answer. That, carried to a higher power, seems to me a pretty good definition of common sense. You may not know the formulae or be capable of all the calculations necessary to get the right answer by yourself, but you have enough experience of the subject and of life itself to tell you what is and is not likely to be a right answer — and how right any given answer is likely to be. Common sense is the faculty by which we are able to judge if a scientific conclusion is likely to be definitive or if further study is needed. Understandably, therefore, scientists who think their conclusions are definitive will want to delegitimize common sense. That doesn’t make this a commonsensical thing to do.

The typical mistake of the new atheists in concluding that, because charlatans and rogues and wicked people invoke religion — why wouldn’t they, after all? — that there must be something wrong with religion is repeated by Mr Linker in respect of common sense. If those he regards as bad people — including all Republican presidents from Eisenhower onwards — invoke common sense, whether they are right or wrong it cannot be the fault of common sense. Common sense is not an infallible guide, nor does it give you all the answers. You have to have common sense also about the limits of common sense. Common sense would even agree with Mr Linker — or he with it, I suppose — in some instances. “That Americans disagree with one another on political and cultural matters is not an indication that those on one side or the other are out of touch with common sense,” he writes. Yet neither does it preclude the possibility that someone may be out of touch with common sense. It is only commonsensical to suppose so.

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