Friday, 21 August 2009

A debate about the stifling of debate

There's an bit in a post on Iain Dale's blog today that set off my 'dodgy argument' alert. It's a quote from Ann Widdecombe about climate change, someone I don't think I've ever mentioned on this blog before. Anyway, here's what she says:
“There is a deep unease that we are rushing into a theology. Those who asked questions are ‘deniers’. We are rushing into a theology imposed by the equivalent of what has become the mediaeval church and no one’s allowed to question it. And even by questioning it you’re doing the world a massive disservice and bringing it under perdition. A lot of us are very unhappy."

There are a number of things that really bother me about this. First, and most obviously, is the blatant hypocrisy of invoking the parallel with religious intolerance by someone who themself follows religious laws strictly. Just to recap Ann Widdecombe, for example, converted to Roman Catholicism because of her opposition to the ordiantion of women as priests. I presume this was not a position based on an empirical assessment of the performance of female clergy, so presumably it was simply based on a rule and its its strict implemention without questioning.

Second, it's my personal gripe, but I do find it incredibly irritating when someone given a public platform in a media interview argues that they are being prevented from expressing views that they... err... have just expressed. National newspaper columnists frequently bemoan that they aren't able to say the things they just said. The irritating gits. Similarly Ann Widdecombe compares the inability to express scepticism about climate change (a quick Google finds over 3.6 million results for "climate change lies" but don't let that stop you) to the mediaeval church's attitude to heresy. Yet I'm pretty sure if you said "I don't believe in God" under such a regime your prospects were rather worse than telling a Tory blogger you're a global warming sceptic. Does it really need stating that there is absolutely no bar whatsoever to people airing views of any kind about climate change? Sceptical views on the subject are aired all the time in a variety of media.

Which brings me on to what I think such accusations about 'debate stifling' are really about. Isn't is essentially just the expression of frustration at not being able to win an argument? Climate change sceptics might argue that they are subject to ad hominem attacks as fruitcakes, extremists or stooges of the oil industry. But it's also an ad hominem attack to suggest that those who aren't sceptics are zealots who don't question their beliefs (or, another common line, in the pocket of Big Government). Ann Widdecombe has no particular expertise in this area, so if she wants to get have an influence on the debate she has to battle it out on the field of ideas, not moan that other people don't simply accept her arguments. Someone arguing back at you that they think your ideas are wrong/stupid/paid for by someone else is not stifiling you, it is the discussion itself. Unfortunately such is the rough and tumble of debate.

If climate change sceptics want to win this one they need to marshall their evidence, make valid and convincing arguments and, most of all, keep plugging away. But to claim that they are being prevented from expressing their views, or being treated as heretics, doesn't stand much scrutiny. It's just the howl of those who can't accept that other people don't find their arguments convincing.

And most importantly of all, their claims that their views are being stifled effectively stifles the debate that I want to have that debate is not being stifled.

PS. I say next to nothing about climate change because that is a reflection of my knowledge of the subject, so I've no axe to grind.


Nicolas Holzapfel said...

It's sad that someone in what should theoretically be the highest debating chamber in the country should display such blatantly fuzzy thinking.

ian said...

Didnt someone recently argue successfully at an Employment Tribunal that they were discriminated on religious grounds on the basis that their whole lifestyle and philosophy was based on the preservation of the planet?