Friday, July 4, 2008

Nuttiness on the Left, Nuttiness on the Right

The question of whether the Internet can help to develop a more deliberative public sphere, or whether it promotes greater polarisation between people and groups, is a recurring one. In contrast to the optimism of many, University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein has wondered whether the Internet worsens what he term the 'law of group polarisation' and the 'echo-chamber effect', where people with right-wing views only listen and discuss issues with others with right-wing views, and people with left-wing views do the same with their own kind.

There is certainly no shortage of nuttiness on the Internet. In the US, someone like Larry Sinclair can get a gig at the National Press Club by continually posting tendentious claims about Barack Obama. Similarly, if you think that 30 years as a ZANU-PF functionary trains you to be a productive Zimbabwean farmer, and that Robert Mugabe's basically a misunderstood anti-colonialist whose policies for the country are on the right track, then the Net is the place where you have the right to say it, and keep saying it regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

But there is nuttiness that doesn't matter, and nuttiness that might. And I've come across two cases this week where nuttiness on the Net seemed to be worth commenting upon.

Clive Hamilton's recent public denunciation of 'climate change denialism' on On Line Opinion strikes me as having elements of nuttiness on the left. Like Clive, and like OLO editor Graham Young, I am not a scientist or an expert on climatology.

I may be a good citizen and download and read the Garnaut Report on Climate Change this weekend, or I may be a lazy citizen and read what everyone else says on the Net. I think there's a real issue, and I understand the 'precautionary principle', although I worry about how every instance of abnormal weather is attributed to climate change.

For example, there were a lot of storms and tornadoes when I was in the US mid-west recently, and every CNN anchor would ask whether it was evidence of climate change, even though they would be reminded that the US land-mass lends itself to wild weather in the mid-west, as there is a cold Northeast and a hot Southwest and the two fronts often collide in the middle.

But it was how Clive Hamilton announced his refusal to write for OLO that struck me as tending towards nuttiness. First of all, there is the need to noisily announce that you are no longer going to write for a publication, rather than just not publishing with them. Its like all those op-ed writers in The Australian furiously and continuously writing about how they are being silenced by the left wing chattering classes.

Second, Hamilton equates 'climate change denialists' - the word "denialist" is used in an interesting way here - with conspiracy theorists more generally:

According to the line of argument about balance, it would be perfectly acceptable for On Line Opinion to carry a series of articles repudiating the link between AIDS and the HIV virus. (Try googling AIDS denialism.)

The AIDS denialists have to account for the fact that the overwhelming weight of medical and epidemiological evidence is against them, so they must invent fanciful theories about colonialist plots and gay capture of science to compensate for the lack of hard evidence to support their beliefs.

This is exactly what the climate change denialists do, and each time On Line Opinion runs one of their pieces it is, inter alia, endorsing their view that Australia's most eminent climate scientists are frauds and liars.

Would Graham Young argue that the interests of balance demand that On Line Opinion give space to the claims of creation science? Would it give space to the conspiracy theories about 9-11 being a CIA plot, or the Larouche delusions about the Royal Family being in cahoots with global Jewry to run drugs? Balanced, yes, but loopy and deceptive too.

There is a technique being used here to delegitimise contrary voices by equating their positions with the loony fringes of conspiracy theory. People on the left would be familiar with the technique of calling someone a communist in order to devalue their argument. I suspect the same is happening here.

It is worth noting that Graham Young does something similar in his reply to Hamilton, suggesting that people who disagree with him are "postmodernists", and therefore out of step with the Enlightenment tradition of rational thought:

The idea that truth is relative has taken over some areas of the humanities through postmodernism, theory and forms of Marxist analysis. That's the school that Clive's argument on global warming comes from. Reading his article, and the comments on the article thread, they really don't cut it in the outside world. We instinctively know that things do have objective reality and are not power constructs. That it doesn't matter how many people say it is true if it isn't. It's in that place in the intellectual debate that On Line Opinion fits. We're not in demise or denial. We're just starting to come into our own.
The final point to be made is that, for Clive Hamilton, the intellectual debate on climate change is over, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply proffering an excuse for inaction, or action as a shill for corporate vested interests.

The denialists have conspicuously failed to generate contrary evidence that can be published in refereed journals and instead devote themselves to creating doubt by exaggerating, exploiting and twisting the various uncertainties and unexplained phenomena that naturally characterise a body of science as complex and emergent as climate change science.
There is enough material in the history of ideas, and the sociology of knowledge, to suggest that evidence of a consensus on an issue is not the same as its being established as irrefutable fact. C. Wright Mills could barely get his argument heard about The Power Elite in 1960 when he wrote the book. Ten years later, it had become an orthodoxy of sociological thought. Milton Friedman was completely on the margins of economics in 1962 when he wrote Capitalism and Freedom. By 1976 the situation had changed dramatically. And there are many other examples of how the weight of orthodox thought in a discipline changes over time.

Given that professional journalists and journalism educators routinely claim that their profession is differentiated by what happens on line by the lack of ethics on the Internet, the Hamilton-Young debate could be a good case study in media and journalism courses on how differences of opinion play themselves out in the online environment. I think it points to what has been called the "noisy" public sphere, but this may prove Sunstein's point about the impossibility of getting consensus on the Net in light of so many conflicting opinions.

The question then is one of how do we conduct conversation in the absence of consensus. I don't think that noisily denouncing an online publication for not toeing a preferred 'party line' is the way to do it, but if that's Clive Hamilton's call, then so be it.

A more concerning example of nuttiness on the right involves the Young Liberals' "Make Education Fair" campaign. This one could be dismissed as nutty, if slightly aggressive, student politicking until:

  1. A Senate Enquiry into the matter was set up in the last days of Liberal-National Party control of the Senate;
  2. You go to the section of the Web site under 'Research' marked 'Academic Watch'.

In relation to the Senate enquiry, it would be hard to go past the observations of Andrew Norton - hardly an enemy of liberalism or the Liberal Party - on his blog that indicate why this will almost certainly generate a lot of heat but very little light. It is very hard for governments to legislate the content of university courses, and for a liberal, moving in this direction would point towards a slippery slope of government control of intellectual life. Moreover, given that the nature of the teacher-student relationship presumes that even the dumbest teacher knows more about their subject matter than the brightest student, the idea that course content is given over to a student plebiscite has a fell about it akin to Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution circa 1967, particularly when it is proposed that this be extended beyond universities to secondary schools.

It is the 'Academic Watch' page that I find particularly sinister. Norton's fears that the exercise could turn into "a witch-hunt for leftist academics" is confirmed when you go to this page. The site 'outs' 18 academics as 'radical leftists', even though they would appear to have little in common with one another except that they are at odds with whoever put together this page. My real worry here is that, one you go down this path, providing email addresses and phone numbers so that disgrunted students or whoever else can harass academics (or worse) is on the cards.

Given that the Liberal Party of Australia is not a minority Trotskyist sect, but rather seeks to govern on behalf of all Australians, such pogromic and quasi-McCathyist behaviour would seem to me to be very much at odds with the 'academic freedom' they ostensibly seek to champion. I would imagine that quite a few Liberals would be deeply embarrassed by the behaviour they see happening in their name on the 'Make Education Fair' Web site.


Kim said...

Terry, it would be better if you linked to the comments on that Zimbabwe entry at LP - presumably the ones you have in mind are by John Tracey. His view on Zimbabwe certainly doesn't have the endorsement of LP, and in point of fact, he's no longer free to post his views on that or any other topic at LP because we no longer allow him to participate on the site because of his constant infractions of our comments policy.

Kim from LP

Terry Flew said...


I agree, and will change the link. That said, John Tracey's comments are consistent with a type of 'Third Worldism' that has a history on the left more generally. LP's articles on Zimbabwe have been excellent.

Kim said...

Thanks Terry.

I think that's historically true about a certain current on the left, but I also think that John Tracey is a bit of a dinosaur these days.