I may be wrong. You, whose opinion I find so distasteful, may be right. It would be foolish of me, this being the case, not to listen carefully to your arguments, and to debate the facts and the reasoning while respecting the speaker. That attitude is what Karl Popper called “critical rationalism,” a prerequisite of the open society.
Evidence of a very different approach to disagreement can be found in human history. If I know the truth, and you are in error, it is obviously my moral duty to enlighten you. If, for example, you are about to run off a cliff but are unaware of it, I should do everything possible to stop you, by force if necessary.
That is, intellectually speaking, the missionary position. It entails two assumptions. One is my moral and mental superiority over you. Two is my right, granted to me by that superiority, to correct your error by every means available. To the missionary mind, morality becomes a weapon of war, and a destroyer of freedom.
Outside the Middle East, recent eruptions of missionary zeal have been entirely secular, even anti-religious, in character. The Marxist believers that died and killed so abundantly in places as far apart as China and El Salvador are the most obvious example. The Freudians were far less violent, but no less certain of their revealed truth.
Missionaries are no respecters of persons, much less of contrary arguments. A person who disagreed with Marxists became an enemy of the working man; when the party gained power, the debate was settled by packing the dissenter off to the Gulag. Similarly, a person who disagreed with the Freudian method was not to be argued with, but diagnosed. The rules of liberal democracy, of the open society, couldn’t compete with revealed truth.
In fact, modern missionaries have loathed liberal democracy: not just the rules, the whole system that makes discussion a requirement of public policy. The missionary position is apocalyptic and authoritarian. Interestingly, zealots tend to cling to their zealotry even after losing their faith. A case in point is the current mania about global warming.
I’m not going to discuss in this space the question of whether the earth is warming, or whether, if it is, the human race is in any way responsible. My quarrel isn’t with the subject matter, but with the advocates, with their methods of discussion. Marxism has of course been wiped out as a fighting faith. Freudianism is finished. Yet, it seems to me, those who wish to impose their ideas on others, the missionary-minded, have simply shifted to global warming as a “scientific” justification for their disgust with our present way of life.
The same irrational force that made the Khmer Rouge empty the cities and persecute the educated, today demands the end of industrial society and the pauperization of wealthy countries.
Fortunately, I don’t need to say much on the subject. Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptical environmentalist, has already said it far better than I could in his brilliant book, with an accumulation of supporting evidence that can’t be shrugged off. Again, I won’t dwell on his thesis, which views poverty, not environmental catastrophe, as the problem. What happened to Lomborg is, in every way, more instructive: the zealots attacked. The Scientific American dedicated an 11-page editorial titled “Science Defends Itself Against the Skeptical Environmentalist” – as if “Science” were a body like “the College of Cardinals” or “the Politburo” – to refuting Lomborg’s book, then refused to give him more than a page in a later issue in his own defense. The truth had to be protected. A man who promoted running the earth off a cliff needed to be suppressed, not debated.
Later, something called the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, an official body, ruled that The Skeptical Environmentalist was “objectively dishonest” and “clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.” On further review, two years later, the government ministry responsible for the committee rejected this finding as “completely void of argumentation.” That makes perfect sense. The missionary position is always asserted from on high. Argumentation would concede that the other person may be right – a dangerous proposition.
Today, the global warming missionaries dispute with al Qaida and the anti-globalization types pride of place among the enemies of liberal democracy and the free marketplace. The damage they inflict, however, is different in quality from that of the other two groups.
Al Qaida kills by the thousands, but is unable to break our spirit. The anti-globalization anarchists can run riot and win a news cycle, but not much more. But those who would use global warming as justification for moral and political barbarism may pollute the wells of science, in my opinion the greatest but also the most fragile institution sustained by our way of life – indeed, as Popper maintains, the very model of reasonableness and respect for contrary findings on which the open society is based.
Science and Nature, the leading scientific journals in the U.S. and Britain, have been accused of “censoring the debate on global warming.” Conversely, individuals with no scientific credentials will receive media attention for any opinion on the subject, if it is grim and alarmist enough in content, and sanctimonious in tone. If it manages a political accusation against the President, needless to say, it becomes irresistible.
Reality is unyielding. The global warming missionaries can’t change it, any more than did the Marxists or the Freudians. I could end this post on an ironic note, by reflecting how some among the intellectual grandchildren of Galileo have, strangely, switched sides and become a church and an inquisition working to muzzle thinkers like Lomborg. But I’m nothing of an ironist, and I prefer to end honestly and optimistically, by citing the final paragraph of The Skeptical Environmentalist:
Thus, this is the very message of the book: children born today – in both the industrialized world and developing countries – will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities – without the global environment being destroyed. And that is a beautiful world.