Be Sceptical, But Be Sensible

11/07/2019

In the past week or so, I’ve watched a few videos and read a few articles about flat earth theories, climate change denial, and other assorted ‘conspiracies’ that are out there. In the vast majority of cases, scepticism is something I would encourage, but are there limits to that? Is it healthy scepticism to question something that can easily be proven, and has been proven multiple times? If done right, then sure.

Now, I don’t say that to give flat earthers, climate deniers, or any other brand of misinformation any credibility – far from it. The only flat earth theory I’d ever except is if the world suddenly became a mirror of a Terry Pratchett novel, and I’d argue with a climate denier on an iceberg to see what convinces them first – me, or the suspiciously rising water level. No, when I say that being sceptical is healthy, I mean if proper research and critical thinking takes place in an effort to actually discover the truth, only then is it healthy.

While I think people are allowed to believe and say whatever they wish, it doesn’t make them any less wrong for doing so. I use flat earth and climate change as the two main examples because they’re two of the more prominent cases out there, and the latter is extremely dangerous. They’re also interesting because in one way they are incredibly different from one another – a corporate profit incentive.

I specify corporate here to mean the fossil fuel industry that relies on climate denial to stay afloat – that, and massive government subsidies that deceptively make them appear ‘cheaper’ than their renewable opponents. Of course, there is an entire sector of the internet dedicated to propagating these kinds of theories, not because they are connected with such corporate powers (although some certainly are), and not even because they personally believe the nonsense they’re spouting. Many probably know how flawed the positions they’re arguing are, but they are able to capitalise on the ignorance and complacency of others.

Where scepticism becomes unhealthy is when people look to controversial figures like Ben Shapiro, listen to him ‘destroy’ university students with his years of media training and public speaking experience, and stop their research there. Their opinion is validated; they are right by virtue of being told they’re right by people whose job it is to ‘look’ intelligent. Aristotle, in the Art of Rhetoric, notes that there are people who cannot be convinced of anything even with truthful facts at hand – hence the necessity of rhetoric to persuade people.

This is a double-edged sword, because rhetoric is incredibly useful and, if used correctly, beneficial tool. But in the hands of a master like Shapiro, it is used to spread misinformation and, rather than convince people that he is right, convince them that they are right. Pit him against someone with credibility to their name, like Norman Finkelstein on Israel/Palestine, or Noam Chomsky on economic systems and ideas, and I’m sure the façade would quickly dissipate.

Back to the corporate profit incentive. Human activity, since the Industrial Revolution, has had an effect on the climate. Following World War II and the rise of the US as a global empire, this effect has increased alarmingly fast. As early as 1954 there were studies proving this, and some of these studies were carried out by fossil fuel companies themselves. In order to continue capitalising on the literal destruction of the earth, money has flowed freely to spread propaganda in favour of coal, oil, and gas.

Politicians, lobbyists, news organisations, think tanks – all of these have been inundated with donations made to push a fossil fuel agenda. It is little wonder, then, that despite all the scientific evidence out there, there are people who doubt or outright deny the existence of climate change. Tell someone it’s a ‘leftist plot’ from those ‘cultural Marxists’, or tell them that 99% of the scientific community has some secret agenda (while, coincidentally, hiding your own secret agenda), and depending on their political and/or ideological perspectives, you have them hooked.

I once tried explaining to a climate denier (who, for context, was complaining about Facebook censoring his comments) how Facebook’s algorithms worked – his comment was, in fact, being seen, because people were reacting and responding to it. Ever the victim, they turned that around to accuse me of talking about the ‘Al Gore rhythms’, because a failed Presidential candidate’s musical debut (that never happened) was apparently relevant, I guess? I’m sorry, I don’t look to Al Gore for my climate science.

Point being, even with the evidence supplied to them, some people will just not accept the truth. Even when told that the fossil fuel industry has been spending millions on campaigns against renewables and climate change, they will believe that it’s the ‘leftist, globalist’ conspiracy to tax poor people (in truth, renewables would be a much more lucrative market than fossil fuels). Even when shown evidence of the damage caused by climate change, they will pick out studies or statistics that are either flawed, incomplete, or too specific (i.e. in reference to isolated incidences and not global patterns) to have any merit, as proof that they are right.

Flat earth, I don’t even know – is there a purpose to that? Maybe I haven’t looked deep enough, but I can’t see any real motive for it.

Scepticism is a brilliant trait to have – but it needs to be used sensibly. Scepticism in the search for truth is to be commended, but when it is mired in ideology, dirty money, or the search for validation, it can lead to misinformation or plain lies. If you are sceptical about something, or want to learn more about a specific topic, then be sure to be as sceptical about the sources you read as you are about the idea itself. Do not let personal biases, or the biases of others, cloud your judgement.

 

Liked this? Read Aristotle and Climate Change

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