‘There Is No Middle Ground for Disagreements About Facts’… Except When It’s a Straw Man
Guest logic by David Middleton
From Real Clear Science…
There Is No Middle Ground for Disagreements About Facts
By Klemens Kappel
Consider how one should respond to a simple case of disagreement. Frank sees a bird in the garden and believes it’s a finch. Standing beside him, Gita sees the same bird, but she’s confident it’s a sparrow. What response should we expect from Frank and Gita? If Frank’s response were: ‘Well, I saw it was a finch, so you must be wrong,’ then that would be irrationally stubborn – and annoying – of him. (The same goes for Gita, of course.) Instead, both should become less confident in their judgment. The reason such a conciliatory response to a disagreement is often desired is reflected in ideals about open-mindedness and intellectual humility: when learning of our differences with fellow citizens, the open-minded and intellectually humble person is willing to consider changing his or her mind.
Our disagreements on a societal level are much more complex, and can require a different response. One particularly pernicious form of disagreement arises when we not only disagree about individuals facts, as in Frank and Gita’s case, but also disagree about how best to form beliefs about those facts, that is, about how to gather and assess evidence in proper ways. This is deep disagreement, and it’s the form that most societal disagreements take. Understanding these disagreements will not inspire optimism about our ability to find consensus.
Some of our most worrying societal disagreements are deep disagreements, or at least they share certain features of deep disagreements. Those who sincerely deny climate change also dismiss the relevant methods and evidence, and question the authority of the scientific institutions telling us that the climate is changing. Climate skeptics have insulated themselves from any evidence that would otherwise be rationally compelling. One can find similar patterns of selective distrust in scientific evidence and institutions in social disagreements over the safety of vaccines and genetically modified crops, as well as in conspiracy theories, which are extreme cases of deep disagreements.
As the political philosopher John Rawls noted in Political Liberalism (1993), a liberal society largely rescinds from attempting to control the flow of information and the minds of its citizens. Therefore disagreements are bound to be pervasive (though Rawls had religious, moral and metaphysical disagreements in mind, not factual disagreements). What is particularly troubling about some societal disagreements is that they concern factual matters that tend to be almost impossible to resolve since there is no agreed-upon method to do so, all while relating to important policy decisions. Generally, theorising about liberal democracy has focused largely on moral and political disagreements, while tacitly assuming that there would be no important factual disagreements to consider. It has been taken for granted that we would eventually agree about the facts, and the democratic processes would concern how we should adjudicate our differences in values and preferences. But this assumption is no longer adequate, if it ever was.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Some of our most worrying societal disagreements are deep disagreements, or at least they share certain features of deep disagreements. Those who sincerely deny climate change also dismiss the relevant methods and evidence, and question the authority of the scientific institutions telling us that the climate is changing. Climate skeptics have insulated themselves from any evidence that would otherwise be rationally compelling.
Show of hands… How many of my fellow AGW skeptics have ever denied that the climate has changed, is changing and/or will continue to change?
Anyone? Anyone? No one? Straw man torched.
OK… So, we can actually agree on the fact that the climate changes. Are there any other “facts” that are seriously disputed?
Well, these “facts” are not universally accepted.
- Carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas. All other factors held equal, an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will raise the bulk temperature of the troposphere.
- The average surface temperature of the Earth has been generally rising since at least 1850, probably since the 1600’s.
- A majority (52-67%) of relevant scientists think that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for more than half of the observed warming since over the past 60-150 years.
While the three statements above are “facts,” their significance is equivocal.
- Estimates of the climate sensitivity (TCR & ECS) to carbon dioxide ranges from insignificant to catastrophic.
- Estimates of the magnitude and rate of recent warming relative to the past 2,000 years are highly variable.
- This only serves to highlight the bald-face lie of a 97% consensus.
Where do real the disagreements lie?
- How modern climate change relates the natural variability of the rest of the Holocene Epoch.
- The degree to which human activities have contributed, are contributing and will contribute to climate change.
- The sensitivity of the climate to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.
- Whether or not any negative climatic effects fossil fuel consumption are outweighed by the economic benefits of fossil fuel consumption.
- The most effective ways to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change.
I’m certain that there are more areas of disagreement. However, these are all disagreements about interpretations and opinions. They are not disagreements about facts.
About the author of the Real Clear Science red herring
Position: Director, Associate Professor
Department: Department of Media Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen.
Research: Klemens Kappel has a broad research profile in analytical philosophy and has contributed to research at an international level in epistemology, ethics, bioethics, meta-ethics and political philosophy. In ethics he has published work on consequentialism and egalitarianism, and issues in political philosophy. For several years his research interests have focused on epistemology, in particular externalist theories of knowledge and justification and problems in moral epistemology. He has published work on epistemological naturalism, skepticism, transcendental anti-skeptical arguments, moral intuitionism, moral coherentism and the generality problem. Klemens Kappel’s current research interests are within social epistemology broadly construed, and he is currently working on questions concerning the value of knowledge, the social function of knowledge and knowledge attribution, the semantics of knowledge ascriptions, disagreement, testimony and the political philosophy of knowledge production.
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