A dank and claustrophobic universe

Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)
Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)

It is by now old news that blogging has forever changed the nature of how information is generated and consumed, but the full ramifications of this change continue to play themselves out all around us today — and will go on doing so for some time yet. The latest area to be transformed is the global war for public opinion over the issue of climate change. As my co-blogger Jeet Heer argues in a fascinating piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (“Climategate’s guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs?“), climate change skeptics have found their greatest influence to lie not in peer reviewed journals or congressional hearings but in blogs written by passionate amateurs — sometimes highly intelligent ones — who are determined to subject even the smallest component of the international climate change assessment process to scrutiny and, once in a while, disproof.

Yet despite the increasing amounts of media attention being paid to their work, the skeptics’ approach suffers from at least one critical weakness:

The key objection to the work of [such] bloggers is that they are engaged in an epic game of nitpicking: zeroing in on minor technical issues while ignoring the massive and converging lines of evidence that are coming in from many disciplines. To read their online work is to enter a dank, claustrophobic universe where obsessive personalities talk endlessly about small building blocks – Yamal Peninsula trees, bristlecones, weather stations – the removal of which will somehow topple the entire edifice of climate science. Lost in the blogging world is any sense of proportion, or the idea that science is built on cumulative work in many fields, the scientists say.

Reading this reminded me of an incident from fifteen years ago. Within weeks of moving our year-old (and at that stage, politically conservative) magazine Gravitas to Toronto after winning a grant from a major Canadian foundation, I was contacted by an enthusiastic libertarian who wanted to buy me a drink. Sitting down with him in a bar, he immediately cut to the chase and explained how he and a lawyer had been working for years to prove that federal income tax was unconstitutional. As evidence, he gave me a folder of materials and newsletters to take home and read at my leisure. There was an ardent light in his eyes, but not being impolite enough to simply bolt, I asked him what he expected to happen if he succeeded in his quest. “The government would get rid of the income tax,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I asked. “The feds would just give up on all those billions of dollars of revenue if you beat them in court?”

He hardly blinked. “Yes. It would be unconstitutional. They’d have to.” Something in my expression must have changed then, because he suddenly followed this up by saying, “You think I’m crazy.”

“No, of course not,” I said quickly, and began maneuvering the meeting toward a conclusion. But I wasn’t lying. Even now I’m convinced he was perfectly sane. I think he was an intelligent and earnest man intensely dedicated to a mission, but also a man entirely lacking in wisdom or perspective.

From such clever and motivated men, God save us all.

Climategate’s guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs?

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