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Facts and opinion in a liberal democracy
A recent video produced for the “10:1
0” campaign, which seeks to cut carbon emissions by ten percent a year for the next ten years, has come under intense criticism. The video begins with an elementary school teacher explaining the 10:10 project to her class, and asking for her students to sign up. All but two students agree, and in response, the teacher presses a little red button that causes the dissenting students to explode in a torrent of blood and gore.
The work of British filmmaker Richard Curtis, the four minute spot has been called a “snuff film” by National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg writes:
This isn’t a joke for the benefit of you and me. No, this is a knee-slapper for those already committed to the cause. The subtext is, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could just get rid of these tiresome, inconvenient people?” That’s why they’re blown up without anyone trying to change their minds. That’s the joke: “Enough with these idiots already.
Goldberg considers this to be part of a larger trend within the environmentalist movement, where opponents are regarded as somehow beneath the debate.
Frustrated with the perceived environmental threat of economic freedom and the inconvenience of political freedom, many environmentalists yearn for shortcuts. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wishes we could learn from China’s one-party system […] NASA scientist James Hansen wants to put corporate CEOs on trial for crimes against humanity. Al Gore compares his opponents to Holocaust deniers and insists that the time for democratic debate is over.
This raises interesting questions about the nature of democratic debate. Environmentalists’ frustration with their opponents, if it exists, is understandable to a degree. The scientific consensus firmly agrees that man-made climate change is happening. And in a debate that is heavily scientific and technical, environmentalists can do little more than cite the experts’ work.
is similar, for example, to the debate over teaching evolution. Evolution is the central tenet of biology, and to any scientist, a biology course not focused on evolution is simply deficient. Yet, the public debate still goes on.
Analogous cases even exist in ethics. You will be hard pressed to find a professional moral philosopher who actually believes homosexuality is immoral. The consensus here is at least as overwhelming as in the science examples. Yet, again, the public and political debate still rages.
The upshot is that these specialists make up a small part of the population – even the educated leaders in Washington are rarely scientists or philosophers. So it is easy for those with the facts on their side to become indignant.
However, the danger of dogmatism should not be overlooked. Such thinking tends to oversimplify issues. In the case of global warming, even though man-made climate change is happening, it is not trivial to debate how governments should respond. After all, calculations of the effectiveness of
certain policies, not to mention the cost-benefit-analyses of certain sacrifices, are difficult questions.
Secondly, the cornerstone of a democracy is the idea that everyone should have a say, regardless of their credentials. To a certain extent, this problem is an inevitable result of a democracy. If we look at the problems non-democracies have, it is a small price to pay.
Photo by Flickr user morphictherapper used under a Creative Commons Attribution license