Sunday, January 04, 2009

Attempting to Intimidate a Skeptic?

One of the best sources of all that is new and newsworthy relating to environment is Tom Nelson. He recently had this link to an interesting exchange between an Australian climate realist and a Canadian climate alarmist. What made this particular exchange noteworthy is that it illustrated a broader phenomenon: the put down by the arrogant academic (and, in this instance, the smackdown that came back!)

Arrogance in academia is a common disease characterized by condescension, presumed intellectual superiority and sweeping referrals to axiomatic assertion. All departments in all institutions have at least one arrogant academic amongst their fold and within the realm of climate change they are revealed by their need to parade their IPCC affiliation (author, Nobel-prize winner -- although most fail to add the Peace prize bit, preferring their audience to think the Nobel was for science -- attendee at some recent international conference their audience was not, etc.) as a badge of their intellectual authority and presumed superiority.

Arrogant academics are utterly self-convinced in the righteousness of their mission, their place in saving the world, their importance. Which is why they suffer questions so poorly and with such condescension. Their answers tend to be sweeping indictments of the questioner's supposed ignorance, they refer to large bodies of literature, rather than provide precise answers to questions and, if all else fails, use large doses of exasperated ad hominem smears and snide comments to vilify the usurper of their brilliance.

The only thing unusual about this exchange, is that ordinary readers are surprised by the arrogance of the academic concerned. Yes, even Canadians are capable of boorish behaviour.

Are all alarmists arrogant? Yes: they are alarmists precisely because they are closed minded to any other explanation and closed-mindedness is a necessary precursor to arrogance.

Are all academics arrogant? No, but arrogance is systemic to academia, its reliance upon peer-review and the publish or perish model of rewards and tenure: understandable but not inevitable. The more intellectually gifted the person, the less academically arrogant they are: as per the maxim, the more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is to learn.

Well then, what about all these realists? The fact that realists are variously dismissed as skeptics by some, and castigated as deniers by others, tends to work against any sense of arrogance -- some may exhibit signs of paranoia, but rare is the skeptic who is arrogant. By virtue of expressing independent thought, most skeptics are accepting and tolerant of their own fallacies and frailties: it is the arrogance of the alarmists, the authoritarian and the academics that impassions them, not a sense of self-righteousness.
  • Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction. Einstein.