I received three items from the Internets today bringing various threads about the right into perspective. First, a note about Joe the Plumber's frustration with the McCain campaign:
"I don't owe him sh*t," Wurzelbacher said. "He really screwed my life up, is how I look at it."
"McCain was trying to use me," he said. "I happened to be the face of middle Americans. It was a ploy."
Readers will note that one of my long-time criticisms of the right is their pandering to people who want to avoid responsibility. Joe Wurzelbacher, being employed to further that end, and presumably being a conscious adult, has decided not to take responsibility for his part in the campaign. Is this irony, is it a nuanced political gambit, or is it just sad?
On the same theme, David McCandless published a great visualization of the arguments for and against anthropogenic climate change. I still can't grasp why people deny the evidence, but then again, I don't understand how people believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago or how people believe that telling teenagers not to have sex reduces teen pregnancy. Since these groups are nearly orthogonal perhaps the common thread is a refusal to accept evidence regardless of the source, kind of like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
There's a serious difference between challenging evidence and refusing to accept evidence. Scientists challenge evidence all the time, though possibly not as much as they should. Still, when you have a pile of evidence in support of a hypothesis (e.g., differentiation of species by natural selection), and no evidence supporting any other explanation, at some point a rational person will accept the hypothesis as fact.
Now, the error bars around the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change are broader than climatologists want; to wit, the consensus is that scientists are 90-95% confident that the facts support the hypothesis. For the hypothesis to win promotion to "theory" (a scientific term of art that translates to "universally acknowledged fact" in plain English), there needs to be a consensus on 95-98% confidence. Note also that this means statistical confidence, another term of art that sounds like it means something a lot less important than it really means. A 90% confidence interval doesn't mean people cause 90% of climate change, or that climate change is 90% probable. It means, more or less, that scientists are 90% confident that the activities of humans are the explanation for the planet as a whole warming up 3 to 9°C over the next 200 years. No one is suggesting people are the only cause, and no one is suggesting that a 3° change in the planet's average temperature will cause snow to stop falling on Alaska.
In other words, the rules for calling something a "scientific fact" (i.e., "theory") are very, very strict, so the massive pile of data in support of global warming—and the rapidly diminishing data set supporting alternative explanations and predictions—doesn't yet cut it.
This isn't a squishy guess about the effects of some untested political idea, this is hard science. So while I accept, to some extent, tinkering with government policies based on guesses and ideology (for example, I believe in socializing infrastructure and health-care costs, while other people believe in private roads and for-profit hospitals), I have a very hard time understanding political opposition to the idea that people are changing the planet's climate. We may disagree on what to do about it, but how can people rationally disagree that it's happening? Even the policy argument in favor of doing something to reduce climate-changing pollution seems unassailable: if the science is wrong and we reduce emissions, wow, we've spent a couple percent of GDP on making the air cleaner. But if the science is right, and we fail to reduce emissions, tens of millions will die. You want beachfront property in Florida? A century from now you can buy it in Orlando. Hungry? Let's hope that rain still falls on places with adequate soil—without washing it away in massive floods.
So what's the objection? Why do people argue so vehemently against the facts?
I think the Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts is right about the choice facing us in this country, of which climate change denial is only one small part:
So no, this is not a clash of ideologies, but a clash between intelligence and its opposite. And I am tired of being asked to pretend stupid is a virtue. That's why I'd welcome the moment of truth [Sarah Palin's] campaign would bring. It would force us to decide once and for all whether we are permanently committed to the path of ignorance, of birthers, truthers and tea party incoherence you represent, or whether we will at last turn back from the cliff toward which we race.
If the latter, wonderful, God bless America. If the former, well, some of us can finally quit hoping the nation will return to its senses and plan accordingly. Either way, we need to know, and [her] candidacy would tell us. If you love this country, Mrs. Palin, you can do it no greater service.
We shall see. We shall see.