Personal virtue

Charles Krauthammer wonders:

Here's my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?

Ooo, Ooo [note–how does one write that Horshack noise?] pick me: "because oil, an increasingly scarce, difficult to procure, and fundamentally dangerous commodity must be the basis of our energy policy."  Or perhaps I could put this another way:

 Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not the basis for a sound energy policy

That's Dick Cheney, mocking the idea that our energy policy (in May of 2001) ought to consist entirely in fossil fuel procurement.  Anyway, it's echoed in Krauthammer's attitude toward environmentalism:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That's right.  Blame those same environmentalists who have been saying, for quite a while now, that "conservation" (only one aspect, by the way, of the view mocked by Cheney–no one argued that conservation was the basis of a sound energy policy) is a public virtue–precisely because of spills such as these.  

*made some minor edits.

Agnotology and Sophistry

As I understand it, agnotology, the scientific name for "epistemic closure," could be taken in a couple of different ways (Or, in the words of the Stagirite translated by Moerbeke and pondered upon by the Angelic Doctor, agnotologia dicitur multipliciter).  First, there is the purposeful production of unreasonable doubt:

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

I think this is far too narrow.  In the first place, it's my guess that not many of those who promote the views discussed above actually believe them to be false.  To this extent I think the Tobacco Industry analogy does not  work.  For on that analogy, the Tobacco companies made efforts to suppress knowledge about their harmful products–they engaged in other words in deliberate propoganda.  

Second, I think what is really at issue in agnotology is the aura of complete unreasonableness associated with a certain set of beliefs or views.  Otherwise science-believing, antibiotic-taking individuals will suddenly seize up when a select set of scientific hypotheses fall under discussion.  Germ theory of disease?  Fine.  Plant Hybridization?  Fine.  Global warming?  Science can't prove anything!

For this reason, I'd say we have a problem primary of selective skepticism.  So the the problem is primarily one of unreasonable ignoring.  This, I think, is a process question.  So agnotology ought to focus on the sophistical mechanisms of ignoring. 

Epistemic Closure

Some conservative fellow wrote a piece a while back using that phrase, "epistemic closure," to describe his fellow conservatives.  It sparked a grand discussion.  The phrase is meant to explain how it is that whole legions of alleged well educated individuals lock themselves into intellectual absurdities, such as the falsity of anthropogenic climate change, that lowering taxes on the rich increases tax revenues, that conservative and industry-friendly health reform proposals are socialist, communist, or fascist, and so forth. 

There is an entertaining discussion of this on Crooked Timber (first here, then here, then here), although the author (John Quiggin) prefers "agnotology" to "epistemic closure" (with good reason, there's a book on the phenomenon).  Go read Quiggin's posts.  The second of them asks the question as to whether the left is guilty of the same degree of agnotology.  His answer is no (I think he's right about this–in the long comments section, no one could satisfy the accusation of tu quoque). 

So what does he recommend?  This:

And as the agnotology/epistemic closure debate has shown, awareness of these facts is increasing. As they become more and more evident, there has been a steady trickle of defections from the intellectual apparatus of the right, some of them quite surprising. With the facts now openly admitted, we can expect to see more.

What does this imply for the left, and particularly for intellectuals on the left? First, as I’ve said, I think it spells an end to any idea that there is value in engaging in discussion with smart people on the other side. It’s impossible to be a smart (and honest) movement conservative, since you have to assent (overtly or tacitly) to all sorts of stupid and dishonest things. Take, for example, a discussion of health care. Whatever arguments someone opposed to Obama’s policy might come up with, if they line up with the Republican position, they are relying on lies about death panels and socialised medicine, repeated by their most prominent leaders, to carry the day. There is simply no point in pretending to engage such a person in honest debate.

Indeed.  I agree.  But ignoring them won't get us anywhere.  They and their silly ideas dominate what passes for public discourse in this country.  Besides, ignoring them plays right into their driving narrative: elitist liberals look down on us.


Strongly implies

Most of George Will's straw men are hollow men–enemies, usually "liberals" made up out of thin air, and made to hold views that would embarass a member of the communist party.  Today we are provided with a rare treat.  We can watch, almost in slow motion, the process of George Will-style straw manning.  We can see, in other words, how his dishonest mind distorts his opponent's words and then attacks them.  Today's column begins:

"Physician, heal yourself," said the founder of the church in which Roger Mahony is a cardinal. He is the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, and he should heed the founder's admonition before accusing Arizonans of intemperateness. He says that Arizona's new law pertaining to illegal immigration involves "reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation."

"Our highest priority today," he says, "is to bring calm and reasoning to discussions about our immigrant brothers and sisters." His idea of calm reasoning is to call Arizona's law for coping with illegal immigration "the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law." He also says that it is "dreadful," "abhorrent" and a "tragedy" and that its assumption is that "immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources."

The problem of illegal immigration is inflaming Mahony, who strongly implies, as advocates for illegal immigrants often do, that any law intended to reduce such illegality is "anti-immigrant." The implication is: Because most Americans believe such illegality should be reduced, most Americans are against immigrants. This slur is slain by abundant facts — polling data that show Americans simultaneously committed to controlling the nation's southern border and to welcoming legal immigration.

First off, note the classic ad hominem (tu quoque variety) flavor to the piece–"physician heal thyself" (but you haven't ha ha ha).   More basically, note that Mahoney (who shares a name with my cat), is talking about discussions of immigrants, not the particular immigration law in question.  For Mahoney, and for any third grader who can read his blog (he's got a blog), you can tell that he is referring to the general topic.  That may be a minor quibble, anyway.  Because the real distortion comes next. 

The clue to this is the twice-used "implication."  Now Will ought to know that the good Cardinal is not likely to make the claim that any law intended to reduce immigration is anti-immigrant simply because this one does.  That would be something like illicit subordination–concluding the universal proposition from the particular.  Ergo–that's Latin–the inference that most Americans are against immigrants does not follow from what Mahoney said. 

But the straw-manner is dishonest, and his objective is to close out the discussion of the opposition on their chosen position, and instead force them to defend, retract or respond to a weaker one.  Whatever they do–and I really don't know what the best way to reply here is–Will's monological tactic wins.  He controls the forum–the newspaper column–he can distort as much as he wants–until, of course, some adult at the Washington Post grows a pair.