Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?

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