Climategate: The good shepherds

December 6, 2009

Belief in conspiracy theories, let me suggest, is more a matter of personality than of evidence.  Temperamentally, I’m a conspiracy skeptic.  I doubt there are many people on earth who can be devilishly clever.

So when it comes to Climategate – the scandal triggered by the unauthorized release of thousands of emails and documents from East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit – I reject explanations that involve Machiavellian behavior.  I can’t see the CRU as the hub of a global campaign to impose the political triumph of green policies.

But the real explanation may turn out to be more serious and dangerous, because it casts a far wider net.  It involves the climate bureaucrats at CRU and their American allies at NASA, NOAH, and elsewhere, many agencies in many governments and international organizations, and the mainstream media virtually everywhere.  In my opinion, these people didn’t conspire together.  They just think alike.

They subscribe to a particular story about themselves and human society which is prevalent among highly educated people, and may well be the greatest threat to liberal democracy today.  My name for the story is “rationalism”; Thomas Sowell called it the “unconstrained vision.”  Some, including many who embrace it, associate this cluster of dogmas with the political left – but I believe it transcends such archaic labels.

I want to be clear about this.  I hold that many climatologists, politicians, and journalists share a number of operating assumptions, which in effect allows them to coordinate their actions without resorting to conspiracies.  That these assumptions are self-serving is undeniable but here besides the point.  They support the story of the elites as the good shepherds, and this in turn endows the believer with the moral authority for practically any action.

Here are the logical pillars for the story of the good shepherds:

A few of us are wise and good, but the average person is foolish and easily misled.

The only moral imperative is human development, and the only path to human development is power in the hands of the wise and good.

Information must be used by the wise and good, but withheld from the public to avoid panic and confusion.

Society is a tissue of outworn traditions and superstitions, and must be rationalized according to scientific principles.

Opposition to the wise and good can only come from selfish, corrupt forces and their dupes.

Evidence of these principles in action abounds in the Climategate affair, and would fill more space than I have in this post – the CRU documents alone are 160 MB.  What follows is by necessity selective and illustrative, which is to say, partial and incomplete.

First, the climate scientists.  We should think of them as scientist-bureaucrats, combining  the analytic inclination of the former and the primal hunger for funding and prestige of the latter.  Becoming saviors of the earth by using their educated brains must have been, from both perspectives, impossible to resist.  Presidents and prime ministers were now their audience.  Further, the names in the CRU documents comprise a suprisingly small group – maybe 50 persons, the power elite of climatology.

Their emails depict a world misled by false prophets, in sore need of guidance:  “I trust that history will give us all proper credit for what we’re doing here.”  As good shepherds, they sought to keep control of the IPCC process, which – as ferocious turf warriors – they intuited to be of supreme strategic importance.  If, to control the IPCC, journal editors must be purged, or the peer review process corrupted – well, the moral imperative trumped such quibbles.  Critics were unscientific barbarians, whom one wishes to pummel and in whose death one rejoices.  They must be denied data at all costs.

The CRU group perpetrated fraud and abuses in perfectly good faith, out of concern for their flock.

The IPCC represented the commanding heights of their work.  It too made news, and provided cover to politicians who advocated costly good shepherd policies and needed a global authority for this purpose.  The 2007 IPCC report obliged with a “Summary for Policymakers” brimming with authoritative dictums – “There is high agreement and much evidence” recurs like a mantra – and making the leap to policy recommendations.  (By contrast, in the full report the words “uncertain” and “uncertainty” appear “1,300 times in 900 pages.”)

The IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri, is nothing of a scientist but very much of a Torquemada, who responded thusly to criticism by a skeptical Bjorn Lomborg:  “What is the difference between Lomborg’s views and Hitler’s?”  Not surprisingly, Pachauri’s response to Climategate has focused on the “unfortunate” “illegal act” of divulging the CRU documents.

For politicians, global warming is like manna from heaven.  Unlike wars, recessions, or hurricanes, the crisis will come, if at all, in the far future, long after they have retired.  Yet it allows them to make messianic speeches, demand increased powers, and hammer their opponents without mercy or restraint.  They can point to the IPCC reports and play the good shepherds free of political risk.

The role demands the use of unbridled language, as Mark Steyn amusingly demonstrates.  These are elites talking to their foolish publics.  They presume simple-minded exaggerations are all such people will understand.  Critics are dismissed as illiterates – “flat earth” types, according to the UK’s Gordon Brown – or villlains.  They, the good shepherds, are wiser and nobler:  thus Brown, Nicholas Sarkozy, and – possibly – President Obama transcend mere politics and assume the robes of philosopher-kings.

Finally, the media.  The story of the good shepherds is identical to the ideology of news, which assumes that, without journalists, the public will wallow in self-satisfied ignorance.  Global warming was the sweetest kind of journalistic enterprise.  It demanded that people be educated against their will.  It inspired constant flattery and cajoling from the ultra-smart scientific set.

Some years back the vice president of the Royal Society appealed to “all parts of UK media” to avoid skepticism about global warming.  Shadowy people “on the fringes, with financial support from the oil industry” might try to corrupt journalists; they must resist.  (Interestingly, the released documents reveal strong “financial support from the oil industry” in CRU research.)  NYT science correspondent Andrew Rivkin appears as “Andy” in the CRU emails.  He is asked by climatologist Michael Mann, who is heaping scorn on those debunking his findings:  “Fortunately, the prestige press doesn’t fall for this sort of stuff, right?”

Climategate has been another blow to the skull of mainstream journalism.  Coverage has been scant and bizarrely slanted.  The best in my opinion has been the WaPo.  Worst by far has been the BBC, which has become a sort of Pravda of global warming – calling it, in one particularly strange post-Climategate story, a “major cause of conflict in Africa.”  But the typical MSM reaction has been muttering or silence.  One need only recall the uproar from the Pentagon papers or the leaked Bush-era domestic surveillance materials, to realize how unnatural this behavior is.

Against its own business interests, the media is looking away from a scandal.  The reason, I suggest, isn’t conspiratorial but ideological.  Journalists, like climatologists and politicians, despise the public and wish to become society’s good shepherds.

The picture that emerges is that of elites in different domains supporting and reinforcing  each others’ impermeability to public opinion.  Climatologists demand funding and the silencing of reasonable criticism.  Politicians promote huge government programs and relegate reasonable opposition to the Flat Earth Society.  Journalists can deal in doomsday and be flattered by powerful and brilliant individuals.  Nowhere, in all this, is there a place for the voter or the marketplace.  Ordinary people are foolish and must be protected from themselves.

And that should be the great concern of all.  The story of the good shepherds leaves no room for liberal democracy – for a multiplicity of choices by free citizens.  It’s top-down.  It’s nakedly authoritarian.  That so many smart people, in so many influential places, have bought into it should give one pause.

I’d almost prefer an honest conspiracy.