Reason to believe: The Cockburn files, Part 2

When partisans clad themselves in their armor of facts and statistics, who can you trust?

Published May 4, 2007 9:28PM (EDT)

In a comment on today's earlier post referencing Alexander Cockburn's global warming skepticism, reader "achilleselbow" contributed an eloquent quasi-lament on the difficulty non-scientists have in knowing what to believe when partisan ideologues engage in arguments over scientific fact. Since I think his points stand for many reporters as well as media consumers, I thought I'd hoist the post out of comments and invite everyone to take a look.

I've always admired Cockburn's writing, as well as that of his brother's. What I detect in this crusade of his is a (perhaps misguided) desire to distinguish himself from the "liberal" pack by taking on a contrary position, as his friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens has so famously done.

It would be insane to dismiss either of these two men as some sort of puppets of the right-wing conspiracy. The fact that someone makes an argument that also happens to be made by a faction one doesn't like is not enough to discredit that person or the argument itself. This is the same tactic used by Israel to paint its critics as anti-semites or by Bush to attack Democrats for being terrorist sympathizers.

Unfortunately, our society has reached the point where ideologies supersede individual arguments or facts. People mostly shape their views by supporting the opposite of things that they believe to be associated with a certain image they have in their minds of the kind of person they don't like. You see this in things like the recent decision by the fundamentalist movement to drop environmental initiatives because that's part of the "liberal agenda." It's not difficult to see how this leads to a vicious cycle exacerbated by the media.

However, in complex scientific cases like this, I don't see many alternatives. I consider myself a fairly well-educated person who makes a reasonable effort to stay informed. But I am no scientist. I can follow statistics and hypotheses well enough, but when talk turns to specific mechanisms and explanations, all I know is what my source tells me. And at that point it becomes a matter of how much I trust the source and what I think they are trying to accomplish.

Of course, the objective scientific truth exists, but in a practical sense, it is only accessible to the vast majority of non-scientists by way of summary and report. So my belief in man-made global warming relies mainly on mainstream media reports that "the global scientific community is in agreement." A right-winger's denial relies mainly on the links provided by conservative bloggers to dissenting studies or alternative theories. One can choose between the two on the basis that the former is more likely to be objective and has a higher standard of reliability. But my point is that for the non-scientist, it is never simply a matter of looking at objective data.

I found that Cockburn's argument against the carbon credit industry, at the least, had some good points. The rest of it I didn't buy, but at this point it's mainly because many more other writers whose opinions I also respect have disagreed. If they were to agree, my opinion would probably be swayed. Maybe this makes me a mindless puppet. Or maybe it's an inevitable result of the specialization of information in our society. I would wager that this is at least partially how even the most well-informed people ultimately make their decisions. I'm just honest enough to admit it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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