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One More Annoying Thing Caused By Climate Change: Confusion

The debate is this: Should people who know better constantly correct people who are saying things that are scientifically sloppy?

Right after Hurricane Sandy, I found myself accidentally thrust into the dumbest, most annoying gray area—that between people who believe in climate change and are very specific about what it does and doesn't cause and people who believe in climate change and are a bit fuzzier with the details.

Got that? I'm talking about people who agree that climate change is real but think about it differently. It is the odd case in which only one of the two groups disagrees with the other.

If you said that climate change caused Hurricane Sandy, you are only kinda-sorta right (more on that momentarily). And Grist's David Roberts has written a few times now about how he is tired of those in the first group—the in-the-know, scientific, journalistic types—obsessively correcting the other types all the time.

It is an area that I would generally like to ignore, and I've done a good job of ignoring it despite many blog posts trying to drag me into it. But after acrobatically dodging it by writing a post not about climate change causing Sandy but rather Sandy causing a mayor to credit climate change for his presidential endorsement, I feel like I have to say something.

Let's let Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard do the heavy lifting.

As Roberts himself explained in a post in June about attributing wildfires to climate change, events have proximate (first-order) and distal (second-order, third-order, etc.) causes. The proximate cause of a fire is a spark. The proximate cause of Hurricane Sandy was an unusual confluence of different weather systems. In both cases, climate change was a distal cause, but as Roberts noted in his post, the real question is, how distal?


(Climate change was, by the way, a very distal cause of this post.)

So the debate is this: Should people who know better constantly correct people who are saying things that are scientifically sloppy?

Says Roberts:

Scientific accuracy is a virtue. But affective impact and moral resonance are also virtues. We cannot say things we know are false about climate change, but we also cannot, in good conscience, be indifferent to whether our words have any effect. Both moral obligations have a claim on us and, contra the scolds, narrow scientific accuracy is not a trump card in every tough case.

Making an impression may well involve loosening language, incorporating allusion and suggestion and polemic and narrative and poetry, which is an uncomfortable prospect for those who have traditionally seen themselves as conveyors of cold facts and facts alone.


It's true that no story is complete with facts alone, but it feels like an ethical question, especially if it "may well involve loosening language." That part makes me squirm. (This is why I am a terrible partisan or perhaps not a partisan, and to a certain extent impatient with great partisans.)

If you've made it this far and your mind isn't made up, some questions to consider:

  • If it's a matter of life and death, and we mostly agree on what climate change is and that it is very bad and caused by man and calls for action, do we need to be specific about what it is?
  • Should somebody have called (did somebody call?) Mayor Michael Bloomberg to tell him (and the magazine with his name on it) that, "thanks, glad you think that climate change is a big deal, but actually we would have preferred it if you realized that unrelated to this hurricane, to which climate change was only a distal contributor."
  • Rick Santorum believes that Barack Obama is not a good president. In order for Barack Obama to not be president anymore, Santorum needed to gain support for his own campaign. Should Rick Santorum have corrected a supporter who claimed that Barack Obama is "an avowed Muslim?" While they presumably believe it for different reasons, they both believe the same thing: That the president should be replaced.
  • \n

I come down, reluctantly, on the side of correcting people and being corrected. It's mostly out of impatience with people I know who say things that they know aren't exactly true—if it feels like a talking point, we're already done.

What do you think?

Photo via Flickr (cc) user infomatique.

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