The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”

Moral-Relativism-copy

A few days ago I was leafing through an old issue of Reader’s Digest when one particular article leaped off the page and smacked me in the head. Now mind you, this issue was published in 1994, before the magazine underwent its transformation into a reasonable, fairly balanced compendium of reading material.  In those days, it still had one foot stuck in the muck of the John Birch fantasyland it had been mired in for decades. This same issue denounced those evil “trial lawyers” for defending citizens against corporate malfeasance, praised regressive Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, and trashed President Clinton — the latter action a more or less recurring feature at the time.

But the essay that especially rattled my noggin on this occasion was much more insidious: it was a classic embodiment of the ill-informed and highly disingenuous war that is often waged against what is commonly called moral relativism. Without presuming to analyze the ramifications of relativism itself (a task that would be far beyond the scope of this discussion or this blog), it’s instructive to examine this 24-year-old screed, because it employs tactics of propaganda that still are very much in use today, and are likely to be 24 years from now.

The piece is a condensation of a speech by the late Michael Novak, who was a frequent contributor to National Reviewwhich is already at least a couple of strikes against him. The title, as conferred by RD,  is All Things Are Not Relative, which is somewhat ambiguous. Did the editors mean to say “Not all things are relative”? If so, that makes sense: two plus two is always equal to four, no matter what the commodity. But if taken literally as written, the statement implies that nothing is relative, which is patently false.  The heat of a person with fever is very different from the heat of a cup of coffee, which is very different from the heat of molten metal.

But of course Novak was addressing morality in particular. His point was that some actions are always right and others always wrong. He was professing to be a moral absolutist. But the thing is, those who claim to be moral absolutists really aren’t; or at least, there are possible circumstances under which they wouldn’t be. More to the point, their denunciations of moral relativism are generally misguided, dishonest and/or hypocritical — as Novak’s address so potently attests.

Ominous Warnings

But before we get to the meat of the matter, let’s pay attention to the ominous signals he sends out, as many propagandists and polemicists do. We don’t have to wait long. The alarm bells start resounding right from the get-go:

Many enlightened people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility.

Wow. That’s quite an impressive series of false equivalences. Apparently equating relativism with cynicism, he then equates cynicism with skepticism and skepticism with passionate conviction and passionate conviction with gullibility. You’re half expecting him to equate gullibility with bestiality. And he’s just getting warmed up. The very next sentence gives an example of this “gullibility”:

Think how many believed in fascism and socialism.

This is a technique I call yoking, which means that you casually link something your audience will know is bad (fascism) with something you want them to believe is bad (socialism). It’s a good bet that Novak, like many “conservatives”, didn’t really get what either fascism or socialism was all about. And that he equated socialism with communism with totalitarianism. Note also the use of the past tense — believed — as if under the impression that both fascism and socialism are obsolete.

And what else are people “gullible” about?

Think how many people, today, believe in global warming or a coming ice age — and think how many believe in both!

This is a twofer. First, he’s trying to discredit legitimate science that he doesn’t care for (global warming) by yoking it with pseudoscience (“a coming ice age”). He’s also pushing a myth: contrary to what anti-sciencers often claim, the scientific establishment has never embraced the concept of “global cooling”. And in all likelihood, literally no one has ever believed in both at once. Novak has a valid point about “arrogant gullibility”, but he is quite confused about who is being arrogantly gullible.

It is the next two sentences that provide the most disturbing signals of all:

One thing our “intellectual betters” never lack is passionate belief. “There are as many truths as there are people”, these ardent intellectuals preach.

This sneering contempt for “intellectuals” is no mere fluke. He repeats it at least once more (“The people know this, while the intellectuals do not” — nice touch, contrasting intellectuals with people), in addition to his already expressed smug presumptions about climate science and “enlightened people”. Anti-intellectualism is a chilling trait of right-wing extremism, including the very fascism that he professes to abhor. The frequent claim is that by teaching students facts that do not support right-wing ideology, professors are “indoctrinating” them into “liberalism”. Just recently, Fox “News” declared that colleges are “literally destroying the country”. There is nothing new about such a sentiment. It was all the rage in America during the McCarthy era. It was trendy in Nazi Germany. And in other repressive societies before that. At this writing, such a tide of anti-intellectualism has engulfed America that millions of people believe an extremely shallow, infantile reality TV personality makes a suitable world leader.

The meat of the matter

And what heresy of the “poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism” are these nefarious thinking people guilty of spreading?

“Follow your feelings. Believe what seems right to you. Do as you please.”

This is a glaring straw man, one that is used quite frequently to attack relativism by those who profess to know better.  Nor is it limited to American ideologues. The year preceding the publication of the RD article, England’s National Curriculum Council Chairman David Pascall, discussing what children should be taught in school, stated:

(T)here is a difference between right and wrong. That is an absolute…We’re also saying that there is a series of moral absolutes which sets out a basic framework of how we live in a civilised society. And these are unexceptional things [i.e., there are no exceptions]…Too often there has been the attitude in the 70’s and the 80’s that these things are a matter of opinion, that we shouldn’t hinder the child’s self-expression. I’m saying that’s not good enough.

Here the straw man is expressed in terms of suggesting that moral relativism is tantamount to declaring that morality is a mere matter of “opinion” and “self-expression”. By the way, it’s common, and always has been, for professed absolutists to ascribe blame for the supposed current state of moral corruption to the supposed excesses of a previous generation — its most frequent incarnation at present is the popular game of Blame The Sixties.

It’s certainly true, and always has been, that there are many people (all too many of them in positions of power) who do as they please without regard to consequences. It’s also true that there are many people (all too many of them in the media) who are willing to substitute opinion for fact. But neither of these behaviors is moral relativism. The former is just amorality, the latter is demagoguery. And both are quite often indulged in by people who present themselves as moral absolutists.

Moral relativism, in a nutshell, is the recognition that specific circumstances influence what course of action is right or wrong. It does not automatically negate the concept of moral absolutism, because it theoretically would be possible to compile a list of the most moral choices for every possible type of situation — though it would be a lengthy and detailed list, to be sure. The point, however, is that contrary to what the supposed absolutists claim, virtually all of us exercise relativism in our moral judgments.

Take what is perhaps the most basic rule of conduct of them all: the taboo against taking another human life. That’s a universal and timeless tenet. Rumor has it that it was even engraved in stone once upon a time. And yet nearly everyone would make an exception to it under the right conditions — even those who insist they wouldn’t don’t really know for certain until the crisis arrives.  Most of us would be willing to take a life if our own lives were in jeopardy. At the very least, we would be willing to exonerate someone who does — the legal system has long made allowances for justifiable homicide.

More proactively, there is the classic hypothetical scenario of having an opportunity to assassinate Hitler, and thereby preventing millions of deaths. Even if you couldn’t personally bring yourself to pull the trigger, chances are you would excuse someone who did. (See also the classic philosopher’s thought experiment known as the trolley problem.)

Many people also believe taking a life is justified on grounds of mercy. But avowed moral absolutists generally frown on this. At the same time, many of them support capital punishment. Even worse, they support aggressive warfare that kills and maims thousands of innocent people, including children.

The best policy?

Another solid rule of conduct is honesty — David Pascall mentions it as one of the absolutes that should be stressed to children. We all know that honesty is the best policy, right? But while there may never be a justification for being dishonest in your deeds, there often are justifications for minor verbal lies.  (It’s still a good idea to encourage kids to tell the truth, because they have not yet developed the faculties for determining exceptions, and rarely encounter incidents when exceptions are warranted.) There are evil and malicious lies, there are self-serving lies, there are defensive lies, there are little white lies, and there are lies that are not only harmless but merciful and benevolent. As the poet William Blake put it:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

Sometimes telling the absolute and literal truth is cruel and unnecessary. I recall reading about a soldier during World War II who came upon the body of a friend of his who clearly had been captured by the enemy, then tortured and mutilated before they killed him. Later, he volunteered for the difficult task of informing his buddy’s parents that their son had died in combat. When he did so, he told them that the death was quick and without suffering. To have done otherwise would would have been to compound their already immense anguish. What kind of person would consider it the moral high ground to give those grieving parents the grisly details when they asked how their son died?

Or to return to Nazi Germany, suppose you, living there and then, were asked by the authorities if you’d seen any members of a certain family. You know that this family is Jewish. You know they are hiding. You know exactly where. And you know that they’ll all be killed if discovered. Would you tell the truth? Or save their lives?

In cases such as these, two moral directives come into conflict; thus logic dictates that the more moral choice is the one that does least harm — which in both these instances is, by far, to tell the benevolent lie. If you chose to tell the truth instead you might well be called an absolutist at following rules. And perhaps you would maintain that since lying involves more direct agency, you would be a moral absolutist as well. But that’s evasive and delusional. In both cases, you would have chosen the course of action that clearly resulted in the greater harm by far, and declared it to be morally superior. If that isn’t relativism, there’s no such thing.

It might be difficult or impossible to come up with a set of circumstances under which, say, adultery would be the “right” thing to do. But it’s a lapse of weakness that happens to the best of people, rather than an offense of calculated malice; and unless you truly believe that it should be dealt with as harshly as cold-blooded murder, then I regret to inform you that you too are a relativist. Likewise if you do not believe that an individual who succumbs to the temptation once and regrets it is just as guilty as one who does it repeatedly and willfully with no remorse.

Big truths?

In contrast to what he presents as the toxic fog of relativism, Novak presents his version of three eternal and immutable truths.

First, truth matters.

That’s rather tautological, but certainly accurate if we’re talking about Truth with a capital “T” — as mentioned, there are times when telling verbal lies is not only excusable but preferable in the interests of Truth. Trouble is, avowed moral absolutists, while touting truthfulness, often support political figures who not only lie flagrantly and inexcusably, but are quite dishonest in their actions as well. These have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and most egregiously of all, the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. All big heroes of “absolutists”.

Second, for all its faults, democracy is always better for individuals and minorities than dictatorship.

Absolutely. But again, the irony is that while preaching this, “absolutists” frequently lend their enthusiastic support to those (see above roster) who undermine democracy and try to eliminate checks and balances, through such dictatorial means as nepotism and cronyism, vote suppression, gerrymandering, court stacking, propaganda, and trying to squelch free media.

And third, for all its deficiencies, capitalism is better than socialism for the poor…

This is blatant revisionism. Capitalism has had millennia to state its case; but for all its benefits, it has been very frequently accompanied by a severe and oppressive economic caste structure, with poverty and misery at one end and greed and exploitation at the other.  The concept of socialism is also rooted in antiquity — it’s even strongly hinted at in that Bible that so many “absolutists” claim to live by. But socialism as we know it is a rather modern development. And while it isn’t perfect, it already has had some impressive successes, whether viewed in terms of prosperity, equality, liberty or opportunity. Moreover, it’s a false dichotomy even to contrast socialism and capitalism. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, many societies have adopted elements of both, including the U.S.A., which has applied certain socialistic principles since its inception. None of this is particularly relevant to a discussion of moral relativism, except that Novak’s evocation is yet another illustration of how “absolutists” are willing to distort and even invent facts.

Gems in the dung heap

Although Novak’s little oration is mostly awful and gets so many things wrong, he also manages, somehow, to sneak in a few words of wisdom. This passage in particular is spot on:

Humans are the only creatures who, by instinct, do not blindly obey the laws of their nature. Instead, humans enjoy the ability to master their passions, their bigotries, their ignorance. Where 250 million citizens are guided by an “inner” policeman — a conscience — the number of real policemen can be few. Among people without this inner policeman, there aren’t enough policemen in the world to make society civil.

Bingo. Yet “absolutists” often seem unable to grasp that this “inner policeman” truly is of inner origin. Every healthily functioning human has this conscience, fueled by empathy, and guided by another human faculty, the power of reason, that enables us to apply the so-called Golden Rule, which is the only moral principle you’ll ever really need.  (The Golden Rule itself must be interpreted in relative terms; you have a right to be a masochist, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to be an undiscriminating sadist.) That is, assuming you have empathy, a conscience, and the power of reason. Unfortunately, some people don’t. Which is why societies need behavioral codes. I would suggest to Mr. Pascall that the school teachers in England and elsewhere should be less concerned with hammering rules into the skulls of children, and more concerned with instilling in them those character traits that will render such rules superfluous, and cause those children when grown to be less likely to violate said rules.

“Absolutists” often operate on the apparent presumption that our “inner policeman” is installed in us by an outside source — e.g., legal and/or religious authority. But the law sometimes goes astray. Religion does so rather frequently. Both have been used to defend bigotry and discrimination of every conceivable variety, and even slavery and genocide.

It is evident both from Novak’s background and his remarks in this address that he regards Christian dogma as the ultimate source of moral guidance. Which is especially preposterous considering that Christians can’t even agree among themselves about such mundane matters as whether it’s morally defensible to work on Sunday. Or is it Saturday? They preach honesty and integrity and yet they revere a Sacred Text that makes a hero of a character who swindles his own father and cheats his brother out of a “blessing”. They frequently lend their enthusiastic support to political figures (see above roster) who lie frequently and maliciously, and commit many acts of low character — even while excoriating Bill Clinton for fibbing about his sex life. They even lie rather often themselves; among other things, they spread many untruths about abortion, which they just know to be evil, and which they just know everyone else should be forced to believe is evil too, even though their Sacred Text reports that on at least one occasion God instructed somebody on how to induce one. Novak specifically was a member of the Catholic church, which has denounced women as immoral for using birth control, while being systematically complicit in the sexual abuse of children.

In short, when “absolutists” rail against moral relativism, they aren’t really railing against moral relativism. They are relativists themselves. And they are choosing to attack people for being relativists of a different flavor. Or more accurately, they are choosing to attack people for other reasons, and are just using relativism as a pretext. And in doing so, they are not above distorting and lying. And flaming hypocrisy.

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Culture Of Confrontation

Argument clinic

Of all the many great Monty Python sketches, I think my favorite is Argument Clinic. In addition to being just plain hilarious, it makes — as great comedy often does — some very astute observations about what passes for modern culture. It underscores how people love and crave interpersonal conflict. It illustrates that a great deal of what we call argument is just mindless “automatic gainsaying”. And it suggests that a great deal of arguing is as pointless and absurd as voluntarily being insulted or hit on the head.

But perhaps the most amusing aspect of all is the preposterous irony of the premise that a person would have to frequent a special clinic in order to find a confrontation. In truth, you’d be more likely to have to hit a clinic to avoid confrontation. It’s all around us. Modern life is saturated with it — as you well know if you’ve done very much driving. Or watching TV. Or attending sporting events. Or browsing online forums. Confrontation is the coin of the realm in contemporary America. Many people seem, quite literally to live for it. They’ll spit venom at you on the excuse of just about any topic they can seize, though there are three in particular (politics, religion and guns, not necessarily in that order) that are just about guaranteed to generate fireworks. Coincidentally, those are probably the three topics that Americans on the whole consider most vital.

We’re not talking about mere conflict, which is a healthy thing. Conflict makes us stronger, gives us direction, and ultimately solves rather than creates problems. But we get all the conflict we need (and sometimes more than we can handle, it seems) in the natural course of living. Confrontationism is the act of creating conflict artificially: attacking someone physically or verbally, not for the sake of defending your turf or accomplishing a purpose, but for the sake of sheer antagonism.

Mind you, there’s really nothing new about any of this. In what is considered the world’s oldest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh from about 5000 years ago, the Babylonian king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu engage in a head-butting, eye-clawing, mud-rolling fight to the death, such as a couple of WWE gladiators would have you believe they do. In the end, the fight is a draw and so, each impressed by the other’s ability to wage a viciously senseless donnybrook, they become the best of buds. Likewise in the medieval yarn about Robin Hood and Little John crossing the footbridge.

But this is a different world now. We can get our thrills from bungee jumping, skydiving and alligator wrestling. We can also watch other people beat each other senseless in the ring or on the football field, and blow each other to bits on the big screen. And we can indulge in all sorts of violent video games and other simulated delights.  Yet our thirst for confrontation does not seem to have abated one whit.

I rarely read online discussions about topics that are the least bit controversial, because it seldom takes more than a few exchanges for them devolve into “flame wars”.  Even on this present site, although most of its readers are a cut above average in the maturity department, there are plenty of people who try to replicate the same cafeteria food fight atmosphere they’ve seen elsewhere. But you may not be aware of it because I’m more fastidious about filtering it out than most blog moderators — I don’t want this site to become another one of those. Consequently, I just delete the attack messages unless there’s a compelling reason to publish them — e.g., they contain factual or logical errors that it would be instructive to examine.

I remember reading about a guest on one of the Fox “News” screaming fests — Bill O’Reilly’s, as I recall — and during commercial break he was advised that he was not being combative enough, so he should ramp it up.  Viewers might assume that the sparks are a by-product of debate; but they’re actually the steak rather than the sizzle.  It’s an addictive vicious cycle, with Fox etc., etc., giving the public the in-your-face clashes it craves, which in turn fuels further craving.

And it isn’t just a matter of experiencing vicarious confrontations in the media. It isn’t at all unheard of for people to get into violent, and sometimes fatal, disputes over parking spaces or other matters even more trivial. Sure, people do stupid things behind the wheel, and they might make you justifiably angry; but is that any reason to call them names, threaten them, shoot at them or follow them home?

One day I was riding my bike across an intersection on a thoroughly green light when a car whipped around the corner and nearly ran me over. Justifiably peeved, I yelled at the driver to watch where he was going; and then I went on my way. He, however, chose to take it as a personal insult that I would reprimand him for being reckless and nearly killing me, so he yelled after me angrily, calling me a “pussy” and challenging me to duke it out. I ignored him, but I could still hear him yelling for as long as I was in earshot. A similar experience occurred even more recently with the driver of a vehicle who nearly hit me when I was crossing on foot — only this time I didn’t even say anything first. The motorist just started yelling, threatening and challenging me because I dared to be in his way.

Nor is it just among strangers. Friends and relatives sometimes shout it out, slug it out or shoot it out, with the initial conflict beginning with the silliest of matters — e.g., who gets the dark meat of the Thanksgiving turkey (the actual impetus for at least one fatal family shooting I read about).

One of the strangest and most disgusting experiences I’ve had in this regard occurred back during the Bush-Cheney years, and involved a friend (or so I thought) whom I’ll call John (since that was his name). John was a very intelligent and well-read fellow who possessed several degrees in a variety of disciplines — or so he claimed at every opportunity. He was also, as I understood it, essentially a Libertarian; and thus I would not have expected that he would have been fiercely defensive about Dubya. Big Mistake.

Pursuant to some comments his wife had made on a related topic, I sent her an article describing how the present GOP in general, and the Bush administration in particular, had a habit of glossing over, if not downright throttling, scientific research that did not support their ideology. It was John, and not his wife, who replied to me, and in the most scathing terms. After first assailing the credentials and credibility of the author — with whom he admitted being unfamiliar — he ridiculed me as a scientific illiterate (after himself regurgitating the myth that scientists in the Seventies had subscribed to a global cooling model) and a believer in “conspiracy theories” (after himself suggesting that thousands of the world’s top scientists were cooking the books on climate change).

Ignoring his surprise invitation to a schoolyard pissing contest, I gently reminded him that neither I nor the writer in question had expressed a stance on any issue involved — e.g., stem cell research. The discussion, I pointed out, was about the Republican attitudes toward science, not my own. And I sincerely urged him to pass along any information on that subject that he thought I didn’t have.

Instead, he responded with more insults and unfounded speculations about my beliefs, motives and background, declaring that he couldn’t explain anything to me because I didn’t have the capacity to understand. Politely insisting that I had the utmost confidence that a man of his talents could summarize recent political developments in such a way that even I could grasp them, I asked him again to clarify why he felt the criticism of the administration was unwarranted. Which just prompted even more insults and bizarre assumptions.

The upshot was that after three or four exchanges like this, John announced that he was terminating our friendship and wouldn’t read anything else I sent him. It was entirely his decision — I’d always enjoyed talking with him even though his pomposity had been evident from the start. In his last message to me, he said it was time for the “Monty Python Solution”. It wasn’t a reference to Argument Clinic; it was a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which one combatant gets all his limbs whacked off by the other, and agrees to “call it a draw”.

Let me emphasize that at no time did I return any of John’s puerile insults.  At no time did I challenge his opinions or express any of my own. I didn’t even correct any of his factual errors, although he certainly committed a few. Yet in his mind, we had engaged in a clash of Gilgamesh-Enkidu proportions, which he of course had won with his diplomas tied behind him.

I wish I could say that this incident was unique, but alas, it isn’t. Just recently, there was something eerily similar with a longtime reader of this blog who in the past had been a valuable contributor to discussions on the forum. But he apparently decided that it would be more fun to indulge in “automatic gainsaying”. He became obsessed with trying to discredit me about something, anything — even if it meant putting words in my mouth or contradicting his own. Among other things, he played three of the most common attack games: ad hominem (shooting the messenger, a la John), tu quoque (“you’re a hypocrite who commits the same offenses you criticize others for”) and what I call psychic psychoanalysis (“You may say X but you really mean Y because you secretly believe Z”).

I’d seen all of this before, so many times that it made my eyes roll; and normally I’d just ignore it. But because this reader had made comments of substance in the past, I thought I’d try being patient with him, and made some short replies to him to the effect that if he would be patient, he would see that his assumptions were off track. Big mistake. Lesson learned. He just interpreted my lenience as an invitation to attack further, and became so desperate to find a reason to snap at me that he offered wild — and wildly inaccurate — predictions about what I was going to write in the future so he could attack his own predictions.

I mention these two episodes because they illustrate four important points about confrontationism. First,  it’s essentially a proactive rather than reactive mindset. Confrontationists may claim that their nastiness is a response to something that someone else has said or done, but it’s usually an aggression rather than a defense; and to the extent that it may be a response at all, it’s usually vastly overblown and altogether inappropriate. John and the reader may have convinced themselves that they were arguing with me about something or other, but the former was arguing against a straw man, and the latter against himself.

Second, while attacks like these are generally, to quote Ambrose Bierce, “merely stupid, although a few add the distinction of silliness”, one can’t always chalk them up to ignorance or ineptitude. John and my reader were both rather bright and very well-educated fellows; clearly, then, their combativeness was a matter of calculated intent rather than unwitting default. Hell, maybe even the two drivers I mentioned were brilliant guys.

Third, they all indeed were guys — and it would be hard to imagine otherwise. Confrontationism is unmistakably linked to the Y chromosome. There are certainly exceptions, of course. In the verbal arena at least, Ann Coulter can Hulk-Hogan with the worst of them. And in peer pressure settings — e.g., schools — there very well might be as many female bullies as male bullies, verbally if not physically. But in the vast majority of cases, this is a behavior mode that goes with being male, not female. Which suggests that maybe one cause might be body chemistry or cultural conditioning. There’s a reason verbal assailants so often use “pussy” as an insult (“dick” is also sometimes pejoratively, but the contexts are very different.) And it’s interesting to note that John’s first vicious missive included a demand that if, in the future, I had any reading matter to send his wife, I instead should send it to him for screening.

The fourth and most important point is that these confrontations are counterproductive and stifling.  As you can see (I hope) the antagonism that these two gentlemen chose to vent toward me totally quashed any chance for fruitful dialog. And that, mind you, is the best-case scenario. Quite often, as we’ve mentioned, such incidents escalate into pointless violence.

Does confrontationism serve any useful purpose at all? It’s difficult to see what that might be, aside from its cathartic value — which, as we’ve noted, can be satisfied through other means. It’s possible that some people use it, even if subconsciously, as a way to test the mettle of a potential ally. It’s possible that if I’d been as nasty toward John as he was toward me, he would have had a great deal more respect for me. Even so, it’s just not worth it as far as I’m concerned. If I have to kick someone in the crotch to win their respect, they’re probably not the kind of person I’d want to deal with anyway.

Many people seem to think confrontationism is really cool and empowering. For my part, I just wish I could make it go away. But I can’t. And it won’t.

Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming

Global warming has been the subject of an absolutely phenomenal amount of propaganda, distortion, misinformation, disinformation, balderdash, poppycock, baloney, drivel and other crap. In fact, with the exception of health care, there’s probably no subject that has inspired more lunacy in the past… well, two years or so. Here are the more common inane and insane utterances that you probably have heard, are hearing, and will continue to hear:

1. “Global warming is a politically motivated liberal hoax.

Actually, the cult of denial about global warming is a politically motivated hoax. Scientists simply studied and reported the facts; but they stepped on some toes in the process. Because the conclusion that carbon emissions contribute heavily to the problem carries with it the recommendation that polluters need to clean up their act. And those polluters have some very powerful allies in Washington and in the media. Thus the intense and well-financed campaign to shoot the messengers and create the impression that there is still a debate going on about the reality of global warming. Sorry to break the news, but the debate ended long ago.

2. “But the evidence is inconclusive.”

Read my lips. If you inherit a million dollars, that means you’re richer. If you gain ten pounds, that means you’re heavier. If the Giants score more runs than the Rangers, the Giants win. If temperatures rise, that means it’s getting warmer. What’s the least bit ambiguous about any of that?

And there is no doubt that temperatures are rising, and have been for some time. Since at least 1880, when reliable measurements began to be taken, temperatures have risen in every decade except 1930-39 and 1970-79. During those two decades, they remained essentially level. But the rest of the time, they climbed steadily.  And the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the warmest decade on record. Furthermore, this is the first time in the past 650,000 years that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its current level. And high CO2 levels are always followed by warmer temperatures.

3. “But scientists disagree over the evidence.”

It’s practically impossible anymore to find a competent scientist who disputes the evidence and who is not on the payroll of oil companies or affiliated with a right-wing think tank.

4. “But scientists can’t be trusted.

So from whom would you like to obtain your information about science? Politicians? Pundits? Televangelists? If you’re going to reject the work of scientists, then stop driving your car, taking medication, eating food you don’t grow and develop yourself, watching television, and wearing clothes. And while you’re at it, turn off the damn Internet!

Scientists in fact are extremely efficient at policing themselves, with a system of checks and balances that would be the envy of many governments. Yes, there are occasional instances of scientific fraud. And it’s almost always scientists who detect them. On the other hand, Fox “News” has no accountability whatsoever; they know they can say absolutely anything and some people will believe it.

5. “But those leaked emails prove that scientists fudged data.”

Those leaked emails prove that leaked emails need context; and that whenever they can’t find a scandal, the media will invent one. There was absolutely nothing in those emails that negate any of the research on global warming, much less indicate deliberate manipulation of data. (See Fact Check’s analysis.) But if you’re going to talk about leaked memos, maybe you should look at this one in which Fox instructs its talking heads to deliberately cover up the evidence. Or this report, which shows that the Bush administration did likewise.

6. “But it wasn’t long ago that most scientists believed in global cooling.”

Nope. Sorry. This is another myth tirelessly circulated by the media and other right-wing establishments.  Despite the fact that climate science was still in its infancy and despite the fact that there had indeed been a temporary cooling trend, most scientists of the 1970s still believed the earth was getting warmer. The “theory” of global cooling was never embraced by the scientific community.

7. “But scientists often change their minds”

That’s one way of looking at it. Science, unlike anti-science and other forms of dogma, is a living, evolving thing.  Scientists are in the business of uncovering facts; so if they “change their minds”, it’s a sign they’re doing their job.

Again, it’s a question of expertise. Chances are if you were on trial with your life at stake, you’d want to be represented by someone who’d spent years studying and practicing law rather than a hairdresser who’s never changed her mind on legal matters. And if you needed brain surgery, you’d probably want it performed by a medical expert rather than a plumber. So why would you want to rely for answers about science on someone whose sole expertise lies in manipulating public opinion?

8. “But skepticism is healthy.”

It certainly is, and scientists aren’t suggesting otherwise; science is built on skepticism.  But who is more deserving of your own skepticism: thousands of the world’s most brilliant and dedicated researchers including several Nobel laureates – or media hacks with perhaps one basic college science course under their belts and a fiercely ideological agenda to push?

9. “But we still have a lot of snow and cold weather.”

This is perhaps the silliest statement of all, so naturally it gets repeated quite a bit. Every time there  is a snow flurry, you can count on someone saying, “well, so much for global warming”, and you can count on someone like Sean Hannity saying something like, “I wish Al Gore would explain where all this snow is coming from”. In fact, Al Gore has done just that; and as always he was met with hoots of derision from demagogues like Hannity. And as always, since he was simply relaying what scientists say, he was right and they were wrong.

Folks, folks. There is a difference between climate and weather. Weather is what’s falling from the sky right now, or over a period of days, or weeks, or even months. But climate is the normal weather for a given area based on a much longer period of weather cycles. Global warming refers to climate, not weather, and just because climate is warming doesn’t mean that all cold weather will suddenly disappear. In fact (write this down) warmer climate can actually cause cooler weather. Really. Ask a scientist to explain it to you. And maybe to Sean Hannity as well.

10. “But Al Gore rides around in big jets and lives in a big house that uses a lot of energy.”

I take it back. This is surely the silliest of them all. So naturally it gets an incredible amount of mileage. Do a search for “Al Gore” and “energy” or “ecology” or some such and you’re guaranteed to get a gazillion stories about his “hypocrisy” and/or “elitism”. But a fair and honest evaluation of his habits is much, much more difficult to find. So what? Do you really want to sacrifice the future of the entire planet in order to make the point that one person is unqualified for sainthood? If so, then please, please PLEASE take a closer look at Mr. Gore’s  “carbon footprint”.

11. “But human activity can’t possibly have an effect on atmospheric conditions.”

Never been to Los Angeles in the summer, eh?

12. “But God will take care of it.”

As Hercules said to the man whose wagon was stuck in the mud, “the gods help only those who help themselves.”

13, “But there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway.” 14.”But it would be too expensive.”

The “expensive” objection is not even a legitimate argument, since all the money in the world isn’t much good if we don’t survive to use it; and the costs (financial and otherwise) of ignoring the problem will be astronomical. But it’s also wrong.  First of all, practicing sound ecology opens up new sources of revenue, such as alternative sources of energy.  Second of all, there are many simple steps that could be taken to have a dramatic impact.

A few years ago, one study concluded that simple conservation measures could reduce energy consumption by 47% (memo to Glenn Beck: that’s  nearly half) and of course carbon emissions would also be greatly reduced. Shortly thereafter Dick Cheney, who was in charge of the nation’s energy policy (An oil tycoon deciding energy policy??? See anything wrong with this picture?) decreed that conservation would play no role in his administration’s energy policy.   Presidents Ford and Carter, however,  implemented more stringent automobile standards which, if left in place, would not only have greatly reduced pollution, but might have totally eliminated the need for foreign oil. And then along came Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of politicians (if we really must) we can’t help noting that among the current crop of congressional Republicans, 53% of those in the House and a jaw-dropping 74% in the Senate claim to know more about climate science than scientists do. Surely it would make a significant difference, and cost nothing to boot, if the American public simply stopped electing characters like these.

IN SUMMARY: Global warming is real. Climategate isn’t. (We’re not sure about Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.) Al Gore didn’t invent global warming, nor did he claim to. It may not be too late to avert disaster. But we probably won’t anyway. In a war between scientists and loonies, the loonies will probably win. Because they have a powerful propaganda machine that no scientist could ever invent.