I claimed the other day that facts aren’t Left- or Right-wing. They’re simply facts, and it’s what we do with them – what goals we wish to achieve, what values we wish to promote – that constitute our political beliefs.
Anyway, turns out I was wrong. One fairly major fact – how deep the sea is – depends on whether you’re a Left- or a Right-winger, it seems. At least in Virginia. If you’re a Lefty, the water is slightly deeper – about 20cm, or roughly eight inches – than if you’re a Righty. Weird, but there you have it. Postmodernism in action: reality is a text, and we can interpret it how we like. All this “objective external reality” stuff is so pre-Derrida.
I should get to the point. Virginian state legislators wanted to commission a study on rising sea levels. But the Republicans in the state senate, partly out of fear of their party’s base, would only let it go through if they replaced the words “sea level rise” with “persistent flooding” throughout. “Sea level rise”, according to Chris Stolle, one of the Republican delegates, is a “Left-wing term”.
Here’s the thing: it’s not. Sea levels have risen about 20cm in the last 120 years. You can argue elsewhere whether that’s down to increased global temperatures, and whether those increased global temperatures are themselves the result of human activity. But the surface of the sea has risen. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat or a member of the Charity, Freedom and Diversity Party, that’s just how reality is. And if the sea rises further, then it will have risen further. These facts may be difficult to determine, since the sea moves around quite a lot, but through careful measurement we can determine them. Having done that, sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “la la la la la” is not a helpful or grown-up way of dealing with it.
And it’s not as if “recurrent flooding” and “persistent flooding” are “politically neutral” terms, anyway. As Scientific American puts it, in an almost audibly flabbergasted blog post on the subject:
“Sea-level rise” is utterly politically neutral, because it is scientific, not political. It involves data and science, not politics and manipulation. “Recurrent flooding” on the other hand is a completely political phrase because it tries to soft-pedal reality. By buying into the belief that the very phrase “sea level rise” is somehow political, the Virginian-Pilot helps anti-science forces politicize even scientific language, to say nothing of science itself.
This isn’t even the worst of it. Over in North Carolina, a few weeks ago, the state legislators decided, like Canute’s advisers, to make sea-level rise itself illegal. Well, not exactly, but they have made it illegal to predict future sea-level rises using exponential curves, saying instead that they should only predict using linear rises. No, naughty scientists, don’t use the best available mathematical tools to assess likely changes, use these ones because they give us an answer we prefer.
To be clear: I’m not saying Right-wingers are uniquely guilty of this. The Left for a long time has been the home of postmodernist nonsense: recall the biologist EO Wilson being excoriated as a racist and a eugenicist for suggesting, in his book Sociobiology, that human behaviour had evolutionary, genetic bases, just like every other species. One protest poster called him the “Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy”, and an audience member at a lecture he gave poured a jug of water on his head.
No, both “sides” are guilty of this. (There’s another post one of these days about how sad it is that politics is so much about sides, rather than ideas, and people would rather see the enemy tribe beaten than persuaded to do the right thing.) And both “sides” are guilty on the specific issue of climate change, as well: in his book Risk, Dan Gardner mentions a WWF leaflet which depicts a young baseball player, ready for the pitch, standing in water up to his shoulders. The IPCC’s actual predicted sea-level rise by 2100 is between 18 and 59 centimetres. As Gardner says, even though a such a rise would cause serious problems for coastal regions, an image of a baseball player up to mid-calf in water just isn’t that frightening.
The climate is outrageously complicated. Our very best efforts to understand it are still a collection of approximations and best guesses. Scientists acknowledge this, and put together predictions couched in the language of probabilities and error bars and confidence intervals. Activists and idiots on both sides need to stop getting in the way of efforts to communicate the uncertainty, and the risks.