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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Dismal, deluded, and debunked con brio

Bishop Hill has linked to what he calls a “magnificent” polemical book review by a man from the other camp, Martin W. Lewis, who speaks from the conviction that “anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action.”

Magnificent it is. Magnificently funny, as in the bit about the pussycat apocalypse; and magnificently right about what is wrong with The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

Lewis writes,

Oreskes and Conway’s authoritarian inclinations are seemingly linked to their contempt for the West, which they identify with a dangerous devotion to personal freedom. The most telling passage to this effect is found in the authors’ interview, where Erik Conway states:

To me, [The Collapse of Western Civilization] is hopeful. There will be a future for humanity, even if one no longer dominated by “Western Culture.”

No matter that Oreskes and Conway see every last person in Africa perishing, they still apparently find such a scenario promising as long as Western Culture perishes in the process.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.

Martin Lewis also highlights an area of particular interest to me. Apparently Oreskes and Conway disapprove of those “overwhelmingly male” * physical scientists who concentrate on narrow “physical constituents and processes”, “to the neglect of biological and social realms.” Lewis quotes Oreskes and Conway as going so far as to regard statistical significance as an outmoded concept. Lewis writes further,

Although many of the key scientific questions of the day do indeed demand, as Oreskes and Conway write, an “understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms,” it is equally imperative to recognize that most do not. Most of the issues addressed by chemists, physicists, and geologists have nothing to do with the social realm, and must be examined through a “reductionistic” lens if they are to be approached scientifically. To insist instead that they must be framed in a socio-biological context is to reject the methods of science at a fundamental level. Such a tactic risks reviving the intellectual atmosphere that led the Soviet Union to the disaster of ideologically contaminated research known as Lysenkoism. In the final analysis, the denial of science encountered in The Collapse of Western Civilization thus runs much deeper than that found among even the most determined climate-change skeptics, as it pivots on much more basic epistemological and methodological issues.

This passage describes one type of catastrophist error about science very well. I would like to point out, however, that it is not the only type. There are also catastrophists who propagate, some knowingly, some not, the opposite error. I refer to those who, rather than dismissing the Gradgrind-like definiteness of physics and chemistry, seek to borrow their reputation for precision and certainty in order to cloak the naked fact that no such certainty is even close to being achieved in the study and modelling of of climate systems.

*And boy, or rather girl, does that irrelevant slighting reference to the scientists’ presumed gender tell you nearly everything you need to know about Oreskes and Conway’s attitude to science.

14 comments to Dismal, deluded, and debunked con brio

  • Paul Marks

    I have conducted long arguments for many years (against people who were once fiends) about whether the left (including the so called “libertarian” left) are enemies of the West, enemies of our civilisation.

    So I do not know whether to laugh or cry when leftists (such as the ones cited) OPENLY ADMIT that they are enemies of the West – enemies of our civilisation. People who think that the work of such men as Joshua Wedgewood in the 18th century, or Jon Huntsman (senior) today, is somehow a bad thing and should be destroyed.

    And please note – there is no REAL concern about C02 emissions by these people (if they were really concerned they would be ardent supporters of the deregulation of nuclear power – so that private companies could develop and build new and better nuclear power stations) – these people are just using the issue of C02 emissions as an EXCUSE for their war against Western Civilisation – and they ADMIT it.

    Other leftists use other excuses – for example the catch-all “Social Justice”, or the (false) claim that economics of scale (indeed the industrial revolution itself) was dependent on government interventions.

    However…… the enemy is the same (whether they follow the Green Flag, the Red Flag, or the Black Flag of COLLECTIVIST “anarchism”) they all want to loot and to destroy.

    Whether in the name of “the state”, or “the people”, or “nature”.

  • Rich Rostrom


    Was the intended reference to Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind?

  • The Neon Madman

    Sorry, can’t help myself – I’m wondering about the “people who were once fiends”.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    Here’s a chilling thought- what if die-hard Greens and committed muslims got together to advance their agendas? Lots of greens think there are too many (western) people on the planet, and the muslims want to help them with the culling of human numbers, so a real dystopian future is one where these forces are allied in control of your country! Any fiction writers out there, wanting to warn us like George Orwell did in 1984?

  • Stonyground

    ” The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.”

    I would think that that is probably because it is part of a great conspiracy that rests on an incincere approach to evidence and argumentation. Ok, calling it a great conspiracy goes a bit far but the rest is more or less true.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Rich Rostrom, yes it was. Thanks for the correction. Weird what one does and does not check. You will note that “dysentery” is spelled correctly in the previous post, because I knew I didn’t know how to spell it. In contrast, I grew up with a line of a mid-price edition of Dickens’ greatest works above the mantelpiece – so of course I didn’t need to check that. Why, I’d had that character in my head for decades! (This is how I make all my most egregous ergregius egregious errors.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    My dear Natalie,

    With reference to your *. Surely you are aware of the awe-ful misconstruction of our world that has resulted from our having allowed BOYS entrée to the study of its Mystery. Thus we have seen the development of modern “science” in all its disgusting, patriarchal phallocentricism.

    It is even worse. I most heartily recommend that persons study closely the ground-breaking work that was done in this matter some years ago by the physicist Dr. Alan Sokal. His seminal paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” can be read at


    The paper, as perhaps you know, engendered a great roar as well as much yawping amongst the illiterati who populate the halls of Academe and edit Peer-Reviewed Professional Intellectual Journals. Dr. Sokal has presented for our edification his observations on the entire matter, as well as some of those of some others who entered the fray; the literature may be perused at


    Your Faithful Post-Intelligence Reporter,


  • c777

    Politicised science, Lysenkoism, the tectonic plates are shifting the Left is losing the debate but unfortunately its not happening soon enough.
    The greatest strength of the Left is their ability to bribe and coerce fools.
    And for the last twenty years on this latest attempt to hijack society has gained some momentum, but as always reality and fact catches up with the flawed concept of Marxism.
    The West is lurching back to the right, or reality as I prefer to call it.

  • NickM


    Google “pebble-bed reactor”


    I have an MSc in Astrophysics. Most scientists couldn’t give a toss about politics.

    In general,

    Yes we have wreckers on the ship.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Alan Sokal is the real deal. He’s a leftie physicist, but it hasn’t completely turned his brain to mush, so he has this quaint idea that science is meaningful when it adheres to investigations by people who are willing to forego fake erudition and dig into experiments and mathematics; but that pseudo-science pushed by English in and Sociology Departments in search of Sounding Awesome is quackery.

    Hard to argue with that position. :>)

    [The point was that he wrote a philosophy-of-physics paper in the best modern socially-conscious gobbledygook criticising physics for being insufficiently informed by racial and gender norms as elucidated in deconstructionism and post-modernism, and managed to get it published in the journal Social Text. Rioting in the streets ensued, with the Guard called out in full SWAT gear to maintain order in the halls and editorial offices, and on the HNN (History News Network) site.]

  • Regional

    If it weren’t for immigration from the third world Europe would collapse.

  • In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account.

    The bloke is still an arse. The only instance I have ever heard of a major oil company funding climate skepticism was ExxonMobil funding research to determine if there was actually another side to the global warming story, research which took place well over a decade ago and didn’t last more than a few years. Other than that, I haven’t ever heard of an oil company denying global warming, or promoting the skeptical view, let alone spending billions on it. By contrast – and I say this as an engineer in the employ of one of the supermajors – the oil companies spend millions boring their employees to death with green agendas and global warming initiatives, a lot of which is hot air (as is the case with most oil company initiatives) but does actually extend down to designing facilities which mimimise carbon emissions in the name of slowing global warming. I have to follow technical specifications which the company has developed which incorporate carbon-reduction into the designs of the facilities (e.g. by reinjecting gas instead of flaring). Anyone who thinks oil companies spend billions on denying global warming obviously hasn’t worked for one.

  • Rob

    I would not expect Guardian readers to be oilmen, generally.

  • CaptDMO

    Plainly, the scientific ‘puter modeling has determined that despite growth up to, and beyond, the age of say…16, failure to “actualize” the expectations that “someone else” is going to change, or at least occasionally empty, the tight swaddling of “social” constraints to “science”, will result in an inevitable event horizon back pressure where the head will go all ‘splodie.