Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.
The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author’s UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.
Lying is lying; bullshit is different
Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.
This book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson’s chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world’s largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions Read the rest of this entry
Well, perhaps not quite a scientist, but Pope Francis really does have, on his CV, a chemistry lab technician’s diploma and related work experience. And Rick Santorum is not quite a Senator, either, more of an ex-Senator, having lost his seat in 2006, but nonetheless a candidate (yet again) for the Presidency of the United States.
Pope Francis also worked for a while as a nightclub bouncer. Nothing to do with the matter in hand, but I thought I’d mention it.
As Santorum should know, Popes have for quite a while had a reasonably good record of listening to scientists. There was, of course, that unfortunate business of Galileo, but that was 380 years ago, his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was taken off the Index of Prohibited Books in 1835, and perhaps we should let bygones be bygones. More recently, the Big Bang Theory was first put forward by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, working in a Catholic university. The Catholic Church has also accepted the fact of evolution for many decades, as laid out notably by John Paul II in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Here, in contrast, is part of Santorum’s record of science denial. He was responsible for what became known as the Santorum Amendment. This said that students studying evolution in US publicly funded schools should also study the “controversy”, i.e. Creationism and Intelligent Design. This passed the Senate in 1991 by a vote of 92-8, but failed to become law, in part because of the opposition of a coalition including 96 scientific organisations. Its spirit lives on, despite this opposition, in the “teach the controversy” campaign that continues to bedevil US science education.
However, it is not evolution that has led Santorum to upbraid the Pope, but the environment. Santorum stated during his last Presidential campaign that the idea of man-made climate change was
just patently absurd when you consider all of the other factors … a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm… just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.
Obviously, Santorum, unlike the Pope, was able to come to a conclusion about climate change without consulting any scientists. But if he was unwilling to listen to the scientists, one might have hoped that he would by now at least have listened to the Pentagon, which warns that
rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.
In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.
Santorum, however, knows better. So when Pope Francis recently said, regarding the damage we are dong to the environment,
We are Custodians of Creation. But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation … is sin! … Safeguard Creation. Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!
(and there’s more to come; the pope is expected to release a strong statement on climate change in an encyclical by June 18)
Santorum felt it his duty to put His Holiness straight, by reminding him that
the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is … theology and morality.
So there you have it. Santorum can denounce climate science as a leftist conspiracy. But the Church made a fool of itself over Galileo, so it should leave science to the scientists, and should therefore ignore what those same scientists say about the most pressing problem of our time.
One unexpected critic of Santorum’s position is Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, who reminded him that the Pope really does have a science qualification, and that 80-90 percent of scientists agree that humans contribute to climate change. [Actually, Wallace inflated the Pope’s diploma to a degree, and it’s more like 97% if we consider the scientists best placed to judge, but by Fox’s standards these are minor details].
Wallace: If he shouldn’t talk about it, should you?
Santorum: We have to make public policy with regard to the environmental policy. Whether we like it or not, people in government have to make decisions with respect to our public policy that affect American workers. The pope can talk about whatever he wants to talk about — I’m saying, what should the Pope use his moral authority for?
Wallace: He would say he’s protecting the Earth
Santorum: There are more pressing problems confronting the earth than climate change.
Such as Santorum’s Presidential bid, perhaps.
There is a scene in the BBC comedy Yes Minister, where a top civil servant is advising his Minister on how to react to a scientific report critcal of his policy.
Sir Humphrey, Civil Servant: Say there is debate among the scientists. Say more research is needed.
Jim Hacker, Minster for Adminstrative Affairs: But…
Sir Humphrey: I assure you, Minster, there is always debate among the scientists. And there is always a need for more research.
I do not know if Santorum has seen that episode, but when Wallace said that the science was settled, Santorum replied
Any time you hear a scientist say the science is settled, that’s political science, not real science, because no scientists in their right mind would say ever the science is settled.
One would like to be able to dismiss Santorum as lunatic fringe. Unfortunately, in the context of US presidential politics, he is nothing of the kind, as was can see from the following quotations, all from fellow-contenders for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination.
Among these, Marco Rubio, Junior Senator for Florida, thinks we shouldn’t do anything about climate change because “all science deserves scepticism”. Rubio, incidentally, currently chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and the Atmosphere, responsible for climate data. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who does actually have a university degree that includes biology, signed into law the Louisiana Science Education Act, which, in the spirit of the Santorum Amendment, states that
the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects
and extends permission to Louisiana’s teachers to
help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.
Those unfamiliar with US creationist tactics may not recognise what is really going on here, so let me spell it out. The Act allows teachers (and the school boards who employ them) to lie to children, by pretending that there are fundamental weaknesses in our understanding of evolution and global warming.
Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkasas, shows no such subtlety. In his own words,
I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I’d be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that’s held by people. But it’s not the only view that’s held. And any time you teach one thing as that it’s the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.
As for climate change, Huckabee has attacked President Obama for saying that climate change is a more serious than terrorism, on the grounds that “a beheading is much worse than sunburn.” Huckabee, apparently, doesn’t know his carbon dioxide from a hole in the ozone. Nor do I expect him to notice the exceptional extreme heat in India, officially described as having killed over 2,300 people before the merciful arrival of last week’s monsoon.
Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, said in a 2011 newspaper interview
I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution.
As for the environment, he also said, earlier the same year,
There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects
and, more recently,
I don’t believe that we have the settled science by any sense of the imagination to stop that kind of economic opportunity…Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.
And so on. Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor, says
I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.
And what of Ted Cruz, another Texan. He chose to launch his campaign at Liberty University, an academic atrocity that I have written about before, where a course on “Origins” (i.e. Creationism) is compulsory. Liberty, incidentally, is the alma mater of Pam Stenzel, whom Scottish readers may remember for her sex-ed disinformation horror show. Anyway, here’s what Cruz has to say about global warming:
I’m a big believer that we should follow the science and follow the evidence. If you look at global warming alarmists, they don’t like to look at the actual facts and the data. The satellite data demonstrate that there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years…. Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know it used to be: ‘It is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat.’ And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.
We have come full circle, back to Galileo. Ted Cruz tells us that Galileo was condemned for denying that the Earth was flat. But the trial was In 1633, 141 years after Columbus had sailed to America, 111 years after Magellan’s expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, more than 1800 years after Eratosthenes had correctly calculated the Earth’s radius from the difference in the length of noonday shadows between Alexandria and Aswan, and over two millennia since the roundness of the Earth had become common educated knowledge.
Ted Cruz is Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science. And like all the politicians quoted here he has managed to find backers willing to put up millions to help him become the next President of the United States, and, as such, responsible for negotiating the US position in climate negotiations. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Latest updated predictions from NASA at https://nex.nasa.gov/nex/projects/1356/