Usually when the topics of Anthropogenic Global Warming (or is it climate change now?) and evolutionary theory are contrasted, the focus is on the validity of the scientific claims associated with both. Is the global temperature average really rising? Is man the cause? Did macroevolution really take place? Does evolution proceed by the mechanisms often claimed? Both sides of both subjects pay a lot of attention, almost exclusive attention, to the foundational scientific questions related to both topics.
But there are important parallels between these topics that too often goes largely ignored – ones which shows that in many ways, the actual science is largely moot. In fact, it’s practically a non-issue when you get right down to it. I come at this from a largely TE perspective on the evolutionary front, and someone who until recently was largely content to shrug and say “Sure, I suppose AGW is at least a reasonable conclusion.” (The Climategate fiasco did serve to nudge me into more of a neutral column.)
Below the cut I’ll explain just what I’m talking about, and how Al Gore has accidentally supplied a crystal-clear example “in the field”.
It’s pedantic to point out, but it still must be said: What motivates most people to get others to “accept AGW” or “accept (Darwinian) evolution” has little to nothing to do with knowledge itself, and far more to do with the actions they hope such a belief will prompt. In the AGW case, the point isn’t to teach others some useful, inert fact like “beavers mate for life”, much less to make people have a firmer grasp of science in general – the express hope is that if someone accepts AGW, they will therefore accept and support specific policies ostensibly meant to combat AGW.
Likewise – I trust I’m not really saying anything groundbreaking on this one – what motivates many people to get others to “accept Darwinian evolution” isn’t the hope that some people will now have this particular belief about biology, period. The hope is that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution will detach them from their religious (and therefore, with luck, social and political) beliefs. You don’t have to go that far to find some very prominent biologists and philosophers saying this explicitly. Now, I did say ‘many’ rather than ‘most’ here, because I think there some who have different, even pro-theistic motivations on this topic – but I’m speaking frankly. And frankly, the draw of evolution for many has been its apparent utility as an anti-religion weapon (among other things), and this has been the case for a long time now.
So one parallel between proponents of AGW and proponents of Darwinism is this: While the topics in question are framed as scientific, the purpose of promoting them are social and political. The goal isn’t really “Get people to believe A”, but “Get people to do B and C”. It’s just that they think “If people believe A, then they will do B and C”. Perhaps because they think there’s something about A which makes B and C more reasonable to do, or even necessary to do. The problem is this complicates matters: It’s possible not only for A to be correct or incorrect, but for B or C to not be necessary or reasonable even given A’s truth. In fact, A may be true, and conceivably (in these abstract terms) B and C may be bad ideas or wrong conclusions.
Let’s move from the ABC talk to a real-world example, helpfully provided by Al Gore.
I’m sure many of you recalled the fairly recent news of Al Gore saying he made a mistake by endorsing ethanol subsidies. Gore, one of the most prominent faces of the AGW movement, had previously boosted corn ethanol subsidies for numerous reasons – and corn ethanol was touted as a way to combat AGW. Gore had this to say about his past commitment on the subject:
One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for President.
Let me pause here a moment to point something out. Gore isn’t saying that he believed corn ethanol was a great idea, but he misunderstood the data, ergo he made a mistake. He’s saying that he wanted to be elected president, certain constituents wanted corn ethanol subsidies, and he was willing to sell this as a great thing for the environment and the nation in exchange for their support. Has the word ‘mistake’ come to mean ‘any act which in retrospect a person claims to regret for any reason, even if they knew what they were doing at the time’?
But that’s beside the point. More central is this: Corn ethanol subsidies would be an example of one of those Bs and Cs that are supposed to follow given the truth of A. But Gore just illustrates the fragility of that move: AGW can be true, but a given policy (touted as necessary to ‘address AGW’) can still be a lousy idea. Corn ethanol subsidies are just a great and prominent example. Maybe the Kyoto treaty was a rotten idea regardless of the truth of AGW. Maybe carbon trading is a lousy idea. Maybe prevention is worse than adaptation. Maybe none of the most popular policies are good ideas. And, as it was with Gore and ethanol, maybe they aren’t being promoted for the reasons their proponents claim.
I want to stress that even if someone is skeptical of AGW, these points – points which assume for the sake of argument the truth of AGW – are tremendously important to raise. Again, what motivates most AGW proponents isn’t the data itself, but the policies they attempt to justify in light of the data. But if the data – even if true! – doesn’t justify their policies, that needs to be noted time and again. Part of the strategy is to make people miss that there’s an extra step beyond simply establishing the truth of “A” in the formula “If A, then B and C are necessary/very reasonable”. But the promotion of B and C are the whole point – and if B and C don’t really follow from A, that’s a point ignored at one’s own peril.
Which brings me back to evolution. As I’ve said before, I’m a TE of sorts. I don’t object to the possibility of intelligent design, or front-loading, or even intervention in nature’s past in one way or another. At the same time, I have no particularly strong ire against the mere claim of macro-evolution and so on – really, they seem like potential design strategies to me. But I do find that very popular line that gets drawn – “If evolution is true, then people should be atheists or reject design/guidance/purpose in nature” – to be utter crap. Rhetoric unjustified by the data, even if the data (not the philosophy or metaphysics often smuggled with it) is taken as true. I admit, the more I look at relatively ‘mainstream’ evolutionary science, the more I see teleology, guidance, and purpose – even as its defenders struggle to ignore, downplay, and deny it. Even if AGW is true, current corn ethanol technology as a way to combat it is a pretty bad idea, and even if evolution is true the atheistic and anti-guidance/design conclusions drawn from its truth are largely inane.
Let me end on this note: Notice that I’m not arguing for the truth of AGW or evolution here. I’ve moved into a more neutral column regarding the former, and the truth of the latter isn’t my focus. But I’m trying to point out, for both AGW skeptics and evolution skeptics, that there are more fronts to fight on than simply the topic of whether AGW or evolution is, at the end of the day, true – because the truth of both AGW and evolution aren’t what matters, even to most of their proponents. It’s what follows, the policies and intellectual conclusions they want to sell you on, given their truth. And if what they want doesn’t follow even granting this truth for the sake of argument, you have everything to gain by pointing this out.