How to use facts and logical thinking to create the big lie

In an opinion piece that filled half of the New York Times’ Op/Ed page on New Year’s Day, Denis Dutton demonstrates how you can use a logical presentation of accurate facts to create, or in this case, support a lie.  

The premise of “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It,” is that mankind has always fabricated potential or probable holocausts and apocalypses.  He begins with an extended history of Y2K, which as many will remember, was the fear of an informational meltdown when masses of computers malfunctioned on January 1, 2000 because the original code built into them only accommodated two digits for the year, not the four that are required to distinguish 2010 from 1910.

Dutton does a credible job, first of demonstrating that reality did not bear out the Y2K hypothesis, and then of connecting it to the apocalyptic visions of various religions.  He jaunts nicely and logically through a quick analysis of why people love to fear disasters, with but one small mention warning of his true goal, which is to disprove the theory of global warming.

(Note to my fellow detail freaks: That small mention fits well into the context of his argument, which at the point of the mention is quite accurate and appropriate.  Here is that little mention: “Religions from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to U.F.O. cults have been built around notions of sin and the world’s end.  The Y2K threat resonated with those ideas. Human beings have constructed an enormous, wasteful, unnatural civilization, filled with sin — or, worse in some minds, pollution and environmental waste.  Suppose it turned out that a couple of zeros inadvertently left off old computer codes brought crashing down the very civilization computers helped to create.  Cosmic justice!”)

So after 700 reasoned words on how Y2K exemplified the propensity of humans to create imaginary threats of imminent mass destruction, Dutton comes out of his climate change denying closet in the very last paragraph:

“This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism.  Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment.  As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.”  Repent and recycle!”

If you’re not reading carefully, as most of us don’t, you could easily let this quiet slide from reason to deception go by unnoticed and find yourself agreeing with his conclusion, which expresses after all, our fondest dream, that global warming does not lead to worldwide suffering.

But if we analyze the article for a minute, we can see two big problems with his logic:

  1. Just because the reasoning leading up to the conclusion is correct does not mean the conclusion is correct. 
  2. He compares Y2K, which was a hypothesis, with global warming/climate change, which is a scientific theory.  A hypothesis is an idea of what could be true but maybe not, a kind of starting point for running controlled experiments. But when scientists start calling something a theory, they pretty much have gathered a preponderance of evidence to substantiate the idea.

The real question perhaps is why the New York Times decided to publish Dutton’s piece.  Would it publish a piece of philosophical rhetoric that concluded that the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth?  Would it print an article on sociology that suddenly at the end proposed that flies regenerated spontaneously from dung?

Sometimes the public stature of the writer compels a newspaper or magazine to publish an article.  But the Times mini-bio describes Dutton as a professor of philosophy at a university in New Zealand.  His Wikipedia biography describes him as “an academic, web entrepreneur and libertarian media commentator/activist. “  In other words, he is neither Henry Kissinger, who might get a free pass onto virtually any publication’s Op/Ed page, or the chair of a Fortune 500 company who might be allowed to give her distorted view of a business news story which directly concerned her company.

By accepting the validity of the climate change deniers on this level of discourse — an Op/Ed column by a little known expert in another field — the Times does as much of a disservice to the U.S. public and our public discourse as it did by publishing the misleading evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without first substantiating it.

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