The Sciences

Al Gore and the Enlightenment Ethic

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 23, 2011 5:18 PM

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Everybody is talking, and rightly so, about the big Al Gore piece in Rolling Stone on science, reason, and the climate crisis. And it is, indeed, quite a tour de force. Gore is not only a charismatic leader (now that he's not running for president), he's a great writer. Nevertheless, I'm afraid to say that Gore is operating, big time, in liberal Enlightenment mode--precisely what I critiqued in The American Prospect. Let's give some examples of Gore's Enlightenment rhetoric:

Admittedly, the contest over global warming is a challenge for the referee because it's a tag-team match, a real free-for-all. In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.

And:

We haven't gone nuts — but the "conversation of democracy" has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

I agree with one part of Gore's message whole heartedly. We really have lost our grip on reality and this really is endangering our politics and our civilization. Without facts, we're screwed. We're dysfunctional. But I don't agree with Gore's account of why this happened. He blames the "powerful." He blames the "Polluters." He blames the media. But most of all, for him it's special interests--money in politics, money in the fossil fuel industry, is blocking our progress and sowing misinformation. Gore seems to assume that if these pernicious effects were vanquished--or controlled by better policy--then the "public interest" would triumph again and we would all rally around it--just as we would all embrace the same facts again. But that just isn't true. The truth is that we are psychologically programmed not to accept the facts; and moreover, we don't all want the same things--liberals and conservatives, in particular, have different value systems and psychological needs. And liberals, in particular, need to think that society can be rational, and that science can fix our problems--and that if it isn't working out that way, it must be due to some kind of wrongdoing or nefariousness. But alas, while our state of dysfunction is very real, the cause is not some evil Machiavellian group of special interests (an argument that works less and less well, by the way, as more and more fossil fuel companies become supporters of climate action). No: the cause lies within ourselves, and our brains.

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