on arrogant ignorance

15 February 2007

I’ve had an opportunity–some may call it a misfortune–to listen to a bit of some conservative talk-show today. The guy was spouting some amazing gibberish about global warming, but that is not quite what I want to talk about (at least, not directly). But he did say an interesting thing, something like that the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives thought that their opponents had bad opinions, while liberals thought that their opponents were bad people. My brain clicked a few times: of course, he was wrong, but…

There are some conservatives for whom I have quite a lot of (possibly grudging) respect. I can debate with them, but our debates revolve around philosophy (primarily that of political variety), but never religion or scientific facts. They share my distaste of the former and appreciation for the latter; they do not reject basic concepts, and we have that, at least, in common: enough ground to stand on and structure the rest of our disagreements around.

But then there are others who…well, not exactly bad, but one wonders: either ignorant and stupid, or, well, ill-meaning, or something. Here is an example.

The aforementioned host, amongst his attacks on the science of global warming mentioned the fact that anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere was only a minute fraction of the naturally occurring one, as if it constituted some kind of defense for his claims. Now anyone who has ever had to deal with systems in equilibrium in the first instance, or to solve an ordinary differential equation in the second can tell you that an extremely minute change in the initial conditions can have enormous effects on the final results. That is the butterfly effect, of course. The size of a disturbance relative to the system is far less relevant than it may appear at first glance. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in mathematics or atmospheric sciences to know that. So…the conclusion is inescapable: either the person who makes that claim is an arrogant idiot without a clue or he has some other agenda that he hopes will be promoted by his extravagant abuse of facts. Are there other options? I don’t think so.
The same person also mentioned that CO2 is only a small contributor to greenhouse warming, again exposing his ignorance. Of course, carbon dioxide is, by volume, far less efficient at trapping heat than methane, for example, but its absolute amounts are so much higher that the total contribution from it becomes quite significant. Duh!

Another example: it is often claimed that capitalism has built-in mechanisms to contain damage to the environment, and that those mechanisms are much better than those that would be imposed from the outside of the market, by the government. But only a brief look into standard economical theory–which is what capitalism runs on–would show that the gurus of the market like Friedman and Simon have themselves admitted that given a high enough discount rate for the future, present-day resources can (and will) be exploited beyond any hope of replenishment. Setting a discount rate has to be done by an extra-market force. (Adam Smith himself had some quite unkind things to say about the “invisible hand”, statements that are never entioned when conservative marketeers quote him).

So, with egregious incomprehensions, omissions, demonstrations of ignorance like that, how the fuck do they expect to be taken seriously? Yes, sir, the opinions of conservatives are bad, but what is more, they are often idiotic and they persist in holding them in the face of all evidence. And that reflects on the person holding those opinions. Sorry, you are a stupid asshole.