Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Conservatives and Lady Hope

I just had to comment on this post from Matt Yglesias, regarding Al Gore citing Dr. Wieslay Maslowski to the effect that “there is a 75 per cent change that the entire north polar ice cap, during the summer months, could be completely ice-free within five to seven years.”  It turns out to have significance not only for the Lady Hope reference in my title (which I’ll explain in a bit) but also as an example of the kind of nonsense that Bob Somerby has been railing against for years. 

It seems various conservatives were in full faux outrage mode over Gore’s saying this because conservatives found a report that Dr. Maslowski had made predictions that were marginally less serious.  Proof the conservatives claimed that Al Gore was making it all up and climate change was a fraud.  Then, what would come as no surprise to Bob Somerby, it has come to light that in other works, Dr. Maslowksi had, in fact, made exactly the prediction that Gore cited.  Once again Al Gore has been called dishonest by his opponents over a comment that was completely accurate, in every detail.  Check out Bob’s site for far more detailed and extensive review of the way Al Gore has been misrepresented.

But the other issue that this post brought to mind was a difference in the approach to assessing comments made by others.  To some people, deciding whether or not to believe some authority involves first deciding that the other person is virtuous, and if so then belief follows.  For others, the question of the authorities virtue is secondary at best, the primary concern is whether or not the authorities claim matches evidence, reason and experience.  If so, then the claims are to be believed, if not then disbelieved.  Therefore, I may well believe in the claims of an individual of questionable character, if the evidence supports him, against another who is generally more virtuous, if the evidence is against him.  Now, the general honesty of a person is not immaterial.  I’m more willing to accept the testimony of someone whose character I admire than from someone whose character I do not, but evidence and reason should always have the final say.

This brings us to the Lady Hope story.  This is a tale that is brought up from time to time by Creationists in arguments against biologists.  Basically the claim is that on his deathbed Charles Darwin was visited by one Lady Hope who converted him to Christianity (and supposedly a fairly literalist version of Christianity) and Darwin renounced evolution.  Now the story is certainly not accurate and has been refuted many times.   But striking to those of us of a scientific mindset is the question “Why would it matter?”.  No person of reason thinks that evolution is a correct description of the history of life on Earth because Darwin, a brilliant scientist, proposed it.  Rather it is recognized that Darwin, by careful observation of nature and by sound reasoning, developed a simple, elegant and accurate description of life’s history that is amply supported by the evidence.  Because he was able to do this we conclude he was brilliant.  The evidence and reason come first, conclusions about Darwin’s character follow.  Had Darwin, in fact, renounced evolution, it would have no impact on my conclusions about evolution.  The same reasons and evidence would still lead to the same conclusion on my part.  I would have less respect for Darwin had he done so, but there could be no change in my conclusions about his theory.  To join in abandoning the theory would require evidence that it was false, not a change in heart by Darwin. 

In a similar vein I respect and admire Newton because his description of the laws of motion and universal gravitation are such a powerful, effective and well-supported description of nature as we observe it.   Were someone to present incontrovertible evidence that Newton had abandoned gravity, and the Copernican model, for Ptolemy's geocentric model, I would think that Newton became crazy perhaps, but could not be affected in my recognition of the accuracy of his theories.  In fact, I need not speculate on some imagined abandonment of gravity.  Newton, the same author of the Principia, and discoverer of laws governing motion and gravity was also a devoted alchemist.  I have no problem admiring his work in physics which is richly supported by evidence, while regarding his work in alchemy, which is supported by none, as a waste of his time.  Again, a scientific description is valuable because it matches our careful observations of nature, this comes first.  The character of the person making the claims may then be judged, in part, by the accuracy and value of those claims, but this judgment of character is secondary.

This brings me then to Al Gore.  The right wing seems to be heavily invested in a kind of Lady Hope story here.  If we prove that Al Gore, a leading spokesman for the science of climate change, is lacking in virtue, then it calls into question the claims he is making.  But that is nonsense.  The claims of climate change are well supported by numerous independent lines of evidence.  The overwhelming evidence indicates that increasing concentration of CO2, and other greenhouse gasses, is causing rising average global temperatures and this is causing various changes to global climate.  Whether Al Gore is a perfect example of human virtue, a monster of historical proportions, or (as I suspect) something in between, has, and should have, absolutely no significance on this question.

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