Clutching Pearls

On the front page of our local paper, and indeed in many papers today, we find the complaint that mean-spirited scientists have been calling poor old Bjørn Lomborg names. “`I really think it reflects entirely on them,’ said Lomborg, a mild-mannered Danish statistician who says global warming isn’t a big threat and that international treaties requiring sharp and immediate cuts in carbon emissions would cost a lot but do little good. Angry words and table-pounding, he said, only show `that your argument is not that strong.'”

In the story we read that E. O. Wilson referred to Lomborg as “the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval.” We read that Ellen Goodman compared him to Holocaust deniers, that Rajendra Pachauri compared Lomborg’s view of humanity (as, in reasonable numbers, sacrificeable) to Hitler’s; that Richard Lindzen describes this as “harassment” and Michael Mann says “There is never a reason for name calling.”

So, (1) really, that is what this article is about — people being mean to Lomborg. Not about Lomborg being someone who wants to do nothing about global warming; not someone who, for some reason, has alienated many of the respectable scholars he initially brought on board with his promise of an intellectually serious inquiry; not someone who’s so self-contradictory it would raise one’s suspicions as to his sincerity. (Those links thanks to John Quiggin.)

In itself, it’s pretty silly to write a fraught article about name-calling, especially on a debate of some import.

But (2) what gets quoted here isn’t name-calling, maybe excepting Goodman. Her analogy of global-warming denialism to Holocaust denialism is not a very persuasive bit of op-ed rhetorical flummery (I’m not really sure what it means, ultimately). But the other stuff is actually serious.

What’s Pachauri (maybe misquoted as) saying? Not “Lomborg is a Nazi” — that would be name-calling — but more like, “Lomborg seems to think entire peoples and cultures are dispensable, which is kinda reminiscent of Nazism.” What’s Wilson saying? Not, “Lomborg is a parasite” — that would be name-calling. Wilson is saying, if you have someone who gets a lot of money to say stuff that less well paid academics have, in conscience, to spend time refuting, it represents an unwarranted tax on those academics’ time — i.e., a “parasite load.”

And finally, (3) it is hereby RESOLVED: that this house blog disagrees with Dr. Mann. Name-calling is a potentially valuable and legitimate contribution to public discourse. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with scaifers or just grown-up people who, honestly, really should know better, you’re entitled to deploy the full range of irony from sly wit to full-fledged mock-making. Calling attention to the ludicrous quality of ludicrous claims alerts the reader that we’re dealing with arguments that we ought not to take seriously. It is not “harassment.” It is how ideas make their way in the agora. And of course, even sober scholars speak more brusquely in rebuttal, more loudly in the public square, than they do when they teach, or when they write their own scholarly conclusions: for even sober scholars are entitled to act as citizens in the public square.

As a corollary, let’s say you’re especially licensed, if not indeed required to pull out rhetorical stops when the guardians of discourse start saying you mustn’t. Because that’s a foul: they’re trying to shift attention from what the argument is about, to how we’re arguing about it. It’s a foul that Ritter, the AP writer, has committed in plain view here, where we see a “mild-mannered” Lomborg pitted against angry, “table-pounding,” “name-calling” scientists. Of course you’d rather stand with the mild-mannered guy against those meanies, wouldn’t you?

Better hope he has a spot for you in a well insulated retreat somewhere on high ground.