I would like to call into question your decision of 28 Feb to simply dismiss Ukraine’s proposal to, in effect, cut Russia off of the internet.
In defending your decision you correctly point out that the historical standard of the internet has been that it should be open to all, and, in particular, that “the means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war.” This is of a piece with claims about technological neutrality, that is, that technologies are not to blame for how people use them. While the underlying motives of your view are, I’m sure, good and noble, the effect in practice is not.
First, the internet simply is not, nor can be, politically neutral. It is a primary means for a great many people to obtain their day-to-day understanding of what’s going on in the world. For precisely that reason, it has become a target for many governments in their efforts to manipulate and control their own people and to mislead or destabilize other people. You know as well as anyone that access to the internet varies not just by wealth, education, etc., but also by direct political intervention. You would like to avoid the internet becoming an explicit target of political action because its administration takes sides in any conflict. That is a very reaosnable objective, but to pretend the internet is not already a target is duplicitous and unhelpful.
Of course, I agree that the more politically engaged the internet administration becomes, the greater the danger to an open internet. The risks and benefits of an intervention need to be carefully assessed, and it makes good sense to put the “burden of proof” on active interventions rather than maintaining neutrality. I am with you there. Unfortunately, you are not with yourself, if you accept that position, since nowhere in your letter reporting your decision is there any weight given to the costs of non-intervention. As far as your letter is concerned, there are no risks involved in letting Putin carry on with whatever he is doing. I think much of the rest of humanity disagrees.
Second, the underlying logic for technological neutrality is simply specious. It may be literally true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” (ignoring AI, anyway). But the metaphorical reality is the opposite: guns enable killing and are hardly a neutral technology. This point is very widely accepted, if not by the NRA and its fellow travelers. Nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons are all examples of technologies coming out of 20th century science which people quite generally have demanded come under international controls, and do. There is little that is neutral about them, beyond the fact that they don’t themselves advocate an ideology. Anybody can use them to kill. However, those technologies are on a side: the side opposed to human life.
The internet can likewise be used to kill.
You may say the internet is just about humans communicating with humans. I hope you are not that naive. Means of communication have been the preferred means of controlling populaces since the beginning of nations, and that has not changed with the internet. It’s only become easier.
You suggest that a failure to maintain strict impartiality would “jeopardise the very model that has been key to the development of the Internet in our service region.” As I said above, I agree. Whatever you do will jeopardize that model, because that model is always going to be at risk. My question is whether you have even considered the risks associated with other alternatives. If Putin succeeds, not just locally in Ukraine, but globally in destabilizing both the international rule of law and democracies world-wide, what will become of your internet neutrality? It is at risk either way, and some risks are greater than others. You have not done a risk analysis and are probably incapable of doing one, especially not on behalf of all of your users.
A Brief Review of Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics and the Fight for a Better Future
Arguing with zombies would seem like a waste of time. They don’t listen; indeed, they don’t cogitate. It may seem right, since what you’ve heard come out of their mouths is pure nonsense. But all they want to do is rip into you while you talk. This is a quandary facing many of us in the Age of Social Media. Brain-dead arguments are all the rage. Why even bother?
Well, almost certainly if your only goal, and only possible effect, is to persuade the conveyor of a brain-dead argument that the argument is meritless, then you are wasting your time. Zombies don’t listen and they don’t have minds to change. Paul Krugman’s book nevertheless does suggest some value to arguing with them. He lays out his arguments so clearly and succinctly that it is a pleasure to read them, assuming you’re not a zombie. For those already familiar with the arguments that counter — destroy, really — the supply-side fanaticism of Ronald Reagan and fellow Reaganauts, which is one of Krugman’s main targets, they serve to remind us of the main points. For the unfamiliar, they provide a great introduction to those issues. The value of arguing with zombies lies largely in providing guidance to newcomers to the arguments, to onlookers, and perhaps inoculating them against brain diseases, but also in supplying handy supports for the familiar in their daily travails.
There is also potential to aid the author her or himself: collating and synthesizing the main arguments opposing the apparently ceaselessly rising tide of zombie arguments can serve the same purposes as teaching undergraduate classes. It aids the author in achieving clarity, focusing on key issues, as well as testing ideas and genuine arguments. As Krugman notes in this volume, achieving simplicity is itself hard work, and far more valuable than most people, lay or expert, appreciate.
These kinds of efforts are more important than ever before. In an age of Trump and Murdoch, Zukerberg and Thiel, a good deal of the money, and so time and effort, of those capable of influencing political decision making is flowing towards zombie ideas, given them an afterlife and energy well beyond any rational justification.
There are many particular arguments that Krugman takes on, providing, if you like, model arguments for the rest of us to wield at picnics, cocktail parties or other gatherings. The rest of us using these models and spreading the word is of the essence, so long as democracy remains a viable political option. Among the many:
That economic austerity is not the panacea for economic woes Thatcherites claimed it is.
That government budgets are not just like household budgets, requiring us to maintain a balance. In particular, that the debt phobia encouraged by the right in opposition, but almost always forgotten about when they gain power (e.g., Reagan’s defence spending and tax cuts, Trump’s enormous tax cut), is grounded in nothing but a misunderstanding of government debt and economics.
That Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge of State Socialism. Also, that Denmark is an authoritarian, State Socialist dictatorship in the same category as Cuba, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Venezuela. In general, Krugman takes down the idea that the government protecting the public through regulation is inimical to any variety of capitalism. The social democracies (not socialist states) of Europe are long-standing counterexamples to this right wing “meme”.
These tax cuts have padded the pockets of the rich, but, no, it hasn’t trickled down since those pockets are nearly waterproof. In consequence, both income and wealth inequality in America has been rapidly growing (see, e.g., Pew Research Center, 2020, Trends in US Income and Wealth Inequality).
That Trump is no fluke: the right side of American politics has been long drifting, and more recently surging, towards outright racism, xenophobia and fear of the future; Trump is only a high-water mark in galvanizing hatred and fear, likely to be surpassed soon rather than late.
The mass media (including Krugman’s own New York Times) have often, but not always, done the public a great disservice, not by spreading fake news (so much), but by often omitting stories that undermine the right, and, in a misbegotten idea of “fair play”, selecting instead unfounded zombie arguments to represent “the other side”.
That the Norquist dogma that the only good government employee is a dead employee is a phony way of claiming that the right way to deal with a Commons is to run your cattle all over it until it is destroyed, so that you personally profit first and foremost, while your neighbors starve (“The Tragedy of the Commons”). All public goods should be captured by the powerful, and the weak or late should die.
The last idea is a misreading of Darwin (as in Social Darwinism), but a true reading of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”, as presented in her novel The Fountainhead. She has had a pernicious effect over the last seventy years, as the wealthy (i.e., potential financial supporters of rightwing propaganda) have read her and found very convenient arguments seeming to justify their wealth and their use of that wealth to screw everyone else. Hers, and theirs, is a morally vacuous universe — the alternative universe discerned by Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump.
All of these messages (and more) will be familiar to many who follow the political debates. Krugman beefs them up with pointed and clear arguments that will make sense to almost anyone willing to digest them.
To take an example, consider the long-standing arguments over a claimed need to avoid large budget deficits by the right, which have recently heated up over $3.5T spending bills and the self-imposed punishment of requiring that a debt ceiling be raised to avoid defaulting on US government debt. Krugman illustrates the hypocrisy of these claims with the case of “Flimflam man” Paul Ryan, who decried Obama’s deficit spending even while advocating a $4T tax cut for the rich. Ryan’s proposed spending cuts, potentially hurting the poor and middle class, would have left a $1.3T hole in the budget, about which he was entirely unconcerned. The net effect of his plan would have simply been a huge new financial burdening of the poor and middle class for the benefit of the wealthy. Complaints about such proposals are inevitably labeled class warfare by our insightful mass media, of course.
It is worth pointing out that deficits incurred through tax cuts for the wealthy are very different from deficits incurred through public spending on health, welfare and infrastructure. The former put money into the pockets of the rich, who have no need to spend it, and generally do not. The latter directly grows the economy. Necessarily, therefore, the multiplier effect, the number of dollars circulating in the economy as a result of the additional deficit, will be smaller following a tax cut than an equivalent public investment. Money stuffed in a bank is less active than that paying a contractor, who pays a subcontractor, etc. This simple point has stumped economists from George Mason University, but shouldn’t go unnoticed by intelligent lay people.
Related to this are specious claims that household and national finances work the same way, so when a government invests in infrastructure through deficit spending, for example, it is “stealing from future generations”. Since investments just are investments in the future, this idea is nonsensical. Not only are the budgetary time scales between nations and families radically different, any family will eventually have to repay its debts, or go bankrupt, whereas nations can and do carry debts indefinitely, so long as their economies have sufficient capacity. In particular, if an economy is growing at a rate higher than the interest rate on its debt, then the debt is likely to be manageable. Krugman points out that there are two distinct kinds of national economic conditions: normal conditions, when extra government spending can “crowd out” private borrowing by sending up interest rates, and depressed conditions, when reducing interest rates can fail to affect private borrowing due to a lack of confidence, and public spending may be needed to keep the economy from further tanking. Whereas many consider Obama’s spending during the Great Recession a failure, it was at least a half success, and the fully successful public spending response for that time was better exemplified by that of Australia under a Labor government. The corresponding considerations for family budgets are non-existent.
QAnoners, conspiracy theorists and others committed to zombie arguments are much like cultists. With a strong commitment to seeing confirmations of their views and reinterpreting disconfirmations as neutral or even positive, directly confronting them with sensible arguments is actually counterproductive. It is almost certainly better to have a friendly chat about the weather (as long as the weather isn’t extreme!). But engaging with those who are not yet committed, who may even be toying with zombie arguments, will be purposeful as long as science, civilization and democracy have any remaining signs of life. We should all thank Krugman for showing us how to engage.
This will be a collection of hypothetical lectures that I might have delivered over the course of my academic career, but didn’t. The goal of this course of lectures is to introduce a broad array of tools, or ideas, or weapons for attacking reasoning problems, taking advantage of a broad range of disciplines. These are meant to be introductory, readily understood by intelligent laypeople who have never studied those disciplines and representing general-purspose methods that might become available to anyone who does study those disciplines at an undergraduate level. So, this collection is envisioned as a kind of Swiss-army knife for your brain. While that is my intention, I do not pretend to cover all the major disciplines, but emphasize those which have had a substantial impact on my intellectual life.
I have taken inspiration from two prolific and excellent writers of articles for Scientific American, A.K. Dewdney and Martin Gardner. In partial consequence of their inspiration, these lectures are somewhat loosely connected; they are intended to largely be intelligible independently of one another, although cross-references will guide the reader through some kinds of dependencies. While this is not intended to be scholarly in the sense of detailing every historical line of thought behind these lectures, or attributing all details to their originators, I do indicate where readers might turn for additional information on these ideas.
The top-level topics I am covering (in tentative order) include: Philosophy, Bayesian Reasoning, Argumentation, Mathematics and Computer Science, Physical Thinking, Modeling and Simulation, Evolution Theory, Information, Ethics, Politics, Cognition and Inference. Posts will be “collected” using the tag #ReasoningWell.
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web in 1990 (Not the internet! The internet was effectively invented in the 1960s and first given form as the “ARPANET” well before Berners-Lee or Al Gore became involved.), a kind of starry-eyed idea that the internet would spread a love of knowledge and freedom around the world, if it were simply left alone by politicians, was very prominent. Most of us, having experienced the rise of social media on the back of the web and the internet, have since then been disabused of such notions, if we ever had them. While the webnet has made science, journalism and entertainment very much more widely available than ever before, it has notoriously also made available huge amounts of misinformation and disinformation, as well as private and semi-private places in which correspondents from around the world can cooperate in burnishing stories embodying them and so spread misunderstanding like a dark cloud over the world. Also notoriously, well-financed state organizations, such as St Petersburg’s IRA, can and do orchestrate disinformation campaigns using unsuspecting useful idiots. In short, much of the internet now operates as a kind of intellectual cesspool, one which no one is yet cleaning up.
In keeping with this spirit of an unregulated wild west, social media have thus far escaped much of the burden of direct regulation. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and others have captured huge amounts of personal data from their users and converted that information into huge revenue streams, in large part through capturing much of the worldwide advertising market. The regulatory environment that used to keep broadcasters and news organizations in check no longer applies. Of course, social media companies are corporations and come under existing regulations that apply to most corporations, such as tax and anti-trust laws. But their basis in new technology means that laws and regulations have, for the most part, yet to catch up with their behavior, influence and evasions. More than most traditional companies, for example, they have been highly adept at minimizing taxes, by having related companies provide services from low-tax countries and paying for them in high-tax countries, thus reducing profits where they hurt and maximizing them where they don’t. Of course, that’s an old game which manufacturing companies have played since well before Google or Twitter existed. However, moving manufacturing plants to low-tax districts is a good deal harder than moving around the nominal location of a web-based service, which can be provided from anywhere connected to the internet.
Not only do social media companies live in a low-regulatory environment, there are only poor prospects for that changing in an economic world largely dominated by an excess of a neoliberal ideology which views regulation as tantamount to corporate murder. However, it has never been more necessary to oppose this view: the threats to individual liberties and privacy posed by technology, both the communications technology of the internet and the emergence of applied AI, have never been greater and will not be controllable without proper regulation.
The Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine was a part of the US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulatory framework from 1949 until 1987. The FCC did (and does) have regulatory authority over broadcast licences and used to enforce the Fairness Doctrine, which was:
The doctrine that imposes affirmative responsibilities on a broadcaster to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints. In fulfilling its fairness doctrine obligations, a broadcaster must provide free time for the presentation of opposing views if a paid sponsor is unavailable and must initiate programming on public issues if no one else seeks to do so (The Fairness Doctrine, 2008).
In a shorter form, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to cover issues of public interest in a manner that was fair and balanced. This was not interpreted as providing equal time for all points of view, but some coverage for important issues, plus some coverage for legitimate alternative points of view to what broadcasters had already presented. The doctrine had teeth and led to the cancellation of multiple licences (e.g., Watson, 2015; Parker, 2008). In fact, its effectiveness in supporting fair and balanced debate is arguably the reason that Ronald Reagan and his Republican supporters scrapped the rule in 1987.
USA Today has done a "Fact Check" on whether the scrapping of the Fairness Doctrine gave rise to the polarization in the US media most clearly exemplified by Fox News. They conclude that this is untrue, since the FCC's jurisdiction was limited to broadcasters, and cable news was not considered a broadcaster. Their argument is defective, however.
USA Today acknowledges that the Fairness Doctrine was effective in getting individual licensees to provide balanced coverage of issues. But they ignore the fact that the scope of jurisdiction of the FCC was in dispute in the 1980s. Already in 1968 the Supreme Court acknowledged their jurisdiction over cable, despite cable not technically being a broadcast medium, on the grounds that otherwise the FCC would be unable to fulfill its intended role. Then in 1972 the FCC explicitly imposed the Fairness Doctrine on cable operators. During the 70s and 80s these rules were slowly wound back, until, under Reagan-appointed commissioners, the FCC scrapped the rule, with Reagan vetoing a Congressional attempt to retain the Fairness Doctrine. In other words, before 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was successfully applied to cable, and Reagan terminated that, not just for cable, but also for broadcasting.
The result was that a cultural acceptance of news programs being balanced dissipated, in both cable and broadcasting. Fox News would never have been possible without these actions, despite their 100% phony slogan of being "Fair and Balanced" themselves. The USA Today "Fact Check" is well worthy of Three Pinocchios.
However, what I want to target here is Oreskes and Conway’s (2010) argument, in their otherwise excellent Merchants of Doubt, that the Fairness Doctrine did a great deal of damage to public discourse by making false equivalencing (“what aboutism”) a kind of norm, in counterpoint to the criticism that its scrapping has done damage by fostering polarization (see box above). They provide a detailed and well-argued account of how false equivalencing has undermined the public discussion, and so the public decision making, surrounding the harms of tobacco use, acid rain, pesticides, ozone degradation through CFCs and anthropogenic global warming. These issues are all importantly linked. They all have spawned devoted groups of deniers who fervently oppose regulatory measures for minimizing the harm caused by related industries — and these groups are largely overlapping, fueled by a common set of rightwing think tanks and common pools of money. (About the money, an especially revealing read is Nancy MacLeans’ Democracy in Chains.) While it’s clear that the scrapping of the Fairness Doctrine has encouraged voices of extremism, especially those backed by Rupert Murdoch, it’s also arguable that the Fairness Doctrine itself gave cover to extremists demanding to be heard on these and other topics — because it’s only fair! — when by rights they would have had a much smaller voice, should volume be in any way proportional to the merits of the cases being advanced. In a nutshell, that is Oreskes and Conway’s argument.
For those who look to the potential value of regulation returning to the role of promoting effective and useful public discourse, and to the Fairness Doctrine specifically as a model for that, this is an argument that must be addressed. The primary weakness in it is Oreskes and Conway’s elision of two key features of the Fairness Doctrine (at any rate, on my interpretation and that of Wikipedia, 2021). It explicitly does not provide for equal time for differing viewpoints, but some reasonable, if lesser, amount of time for legitimate alternative viewpoints (see box below). It provides for no (mandatory) time for illegitimate points of view. The legitimacy of differing points of view is up for debate in many cases, of course, and, when the Fairness Doctrine was in existence, legitimacy was ultimately settled by the courts, which have always been a rational backstop for deciding the limits of public discourse. Where the claims of a faction have been thoroughly discredited by science — as they have been in all the cases discussed in Oreskes and Conway’s book, and indeed already were at the times of the debate over their regulation — there is no need under the Fairness Doctrine to give any time to those points of view, nor would the courts force the presentation of illegitimate nonsense, regardless of the funds behind it. The push for false equivalency is indeed a prominent tactic of deniers of science, but, if it drew upon the Fairness Doctrine before 1987, then it did so without justification and under false pretences.
I am not an expert in the law, let alone in FCC law, but there are clear indications in US Supreme Court findings supporting my lesser point that legitimacy to some (unspecified) standard was required of a thesis or point of view before the Fairness Doctrine could be invoked, which I quote below. Regardless, even if my interpretation is mistaken, the more important point is that it could be true. If we are to adopt some version of a Fairness Doctrine for use in regulating social media, it needs to be one which supports legitimacy and rules out the discredited. Here are some quotes pertinent to the lesser issue (note that allowing disproven, illegitimate points of view a significant voice is clearly not in the public interest):
Referring to legislation supporting the Fairness Doctrine, the US Supreme Court observed: `Senator Scott, another Senate manager [of the legislation], added that: "It is intended to encompass all legitimate areas of public importance which are controversial," not just politics.' (US Supreme Court, 1969)`The statutory authority of the FCC to promulgate these regulations derives from the mandate to the "Commission from time to time, as public convenience, interest, or necessity requires" to promulgate "such rules and regulations and prescribe such restrictions and conditions . . . as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this chapter . . . ." 47 U.S.C. 303 and 303 (r).[note 7] The Commission is specifically directed to consider the demands of the public interest... This mandate to the FCC to assure that broadcasters operate in the public interest is a broad one, a power "not niggardly but expansive."' (US Supreme Court, 1969)The Fairness Doctrine is repeatedly described as supporting broadcasting on important public issues, which would rule out, for example, giving time to flat-earthers. For example, "[licensees have] assumed the obligation of presenting important public questions fairly and without bias." (US Supreme Court, 1969)On the restrictions imposed by the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters' freedom of choice: "Such restrictions have been upheld by this Court only when they were narrowly tailored to further a substantial governmental interest, such as ensuring adequate and balanced coverage of public issues." (US Supreme Court, 1984)
Given the widespread and growing flow of misinformation and disinformation on social media, the Fairness Doctrine, or rather some descendant of it also incorporating protection of the public from promulgation of the illegitimate, could provide the justification and means of choking that flow and so allowing social media to serve the truly useful purpose of supporting a “marketplace of ideas” instead of being a poisonous wetmarket spawning misinformation pandemics.
In short, regulations sharing purpose with the Fairness Doctrine are fair game for nations wanting to foster valuable public debate, which is part of the foundation of any democracy. Such regulation is needed for traditional broadcasters. The US Supreme Court extended the doctrine to cable networks on the grounds that the FCC could not fulfill its function if cable were excluded. On the very same grounds, but with even stronger force, such regulation needs to be applied to internet- and web-based social media, which have collectively outgrown both broadcasting and cable in their reach and importance for public debate.
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced in 2016, establishing EU-wide principles for the protection of personal data, including rights to informed consent to the collection of data and the restriction of its use to the purposes for which consent was given. The GDPR also provides for enforcement powers, with each member country having a Data Protection Authority (DPA) to investigate and prosecute violations. Of course, those US tech companies which have so successfully “monetized” your data objected long and loud to the GDPR. Once it became operational, however, they went quiet, since, while there are compliance costs, compliance is in fact feasible and doesn’t stop them earning money in Europe. The rest of the world benefits from EU regulation in a minimal way, when companies are either obliged to obey the GDPR because of doing business with the EU or where they simply prefer a uniform way of doing business across jurisdictions.
The social media goals for data acquisition are largely to do with (mis)using the data for better targeting advertising, because that’s largely where the revenue comes from. If users voluntarily agree to such use, knowing the scope of the usage in advance, that’s fair enough. And that’s exactly what the GDPR allows, as well as what it limits data usage to. But the threats involving data acquisition are now hugely greater than simply making money. Facial recognition software is now routinely used by police. With much of the world playing catch up with Chinese-level camera surveillance, the potential for abuse of such information is enormous. Deep fake technology has the potential to weaponize personal data, directing much more effectively manipulative advertising at you, as well as using your data to spread more effective and manipulative misinformation about you and groups you belong to. Identity theft using deep fake videos will be much easier than that using earlier technology, for example. As another example, blackmail and extortion based on compromising information have long been lucrative activities for criminals; blackmail and extortion based on compromising deep fake misinformation will be orders of magnitude easier. Deep Fakes will not for long be limited to passive videos and audios; they will soon be extended to real-time interactive simulations of a targeted victim, providing even more persuasive power for fakery (Wang, 2019). With the near-term development of the “Internet of Things” — wiring all of our refrigerators, cars, air conditioning systems, etc. into the internet — the raw data on which Surveillance Capitalism operates will expand exponentially for the foreseeable future. The rise, and combination, of Big Data and Machine Learning using Big Data (e.g., Deep Fakery) portends parlous times on the net. Berners-Lee style enthusiasm for a “free range” on an internet wild west is no longer so much quaint as simply dangerous.
There is still news reporting and journalism in the world. There are both private and public organizations which put a good deal of effort and money into tracking what’s happening of interest around the world and presenting it to their audiences. This is so despite, for example, US newspaper advertising revenue having declined about 55% since the invention of the worldwide web to 2018 (per a Pew Center Report), whereas in the same period US social media ad revenue grew from nothing to 3,571 times that of the newspapers (i.e., 357,100% more). Since news organizations originate and curate their news and opinion reports, it is reasonable to hold them accountable for the content, for example by allowing some defamation actions against them. Social media, on the other hand, simply offer platforms for others to write or speak upon. Especially given the size of their memberships, it is both impossible and unreasonable to expect them to police the content of posts in the same way as news media. Or, at least, that is the common view.
Indeed, this is the rationale behind the now famous Section 230 of the US Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”) Making social media responsible for content, when that content is put out by millions or even billions of people, would make social media unviable. Not even the AI of the foreseeable future would be able to police their posts effectively enough to avoid huge legal costs. It’s possible, of course, that the courts would find a balance between the financial and operational health of social media organizations and their legal opponents in such a new environment, with Section 230 removed, but there is no guarantee. The nominal reason that Donald Trump wanted Section 230 deleted was that social media were censoring rightwing voices. But the reality is, of course, that without the protection of Section 230 social media would be forced to censor even more heavily or else just be shut down.
What I am calling for here is an even heavier forced censorship, in addition to new privacy protections. Illegitimate claims pushed by Russia’s IRA, Q, climate deniers, big monied interests must lose their voices. They are diminishing, not enriching, public debate. Illegitimacy, exposed by science and confirmed by courts, must not be heard. How exactly to make such a mandate operational is an open question. There need to be independent authorities for initial judgments of fairness and legitimacy in analogy to GDPR’s Data Protection Authorities, where independence refers to a lack of dependency upon both the social media organizations and a nation’s politics. In view of the latter, unlike the DPAs, it would be best if the new authority were explicitly international. There are plenty of precedents in international law for such organizations. Successful examples of international regulatory bodies include the UN’s Universal Postal Union, which coordinates worldwide postal systems, the UN’s International Maritime Organization, which regulates international shipping, or the World Trade Organization, which regulates international trade.
While forcing social media to report matters fairly, including intervening in their users’ mis/disinformation, would be a new burden on them, it is nothing like the threat revocation of Section 230 would raise. If social media are judged directly responsible for misinformation, through perhaps negligence, then penalties might be in order. But if a UN authority points out that some accounts are spreading disinformation, the existing practice of deleting those accounts would likely suffice to contain the matter. There is no need to threaten social media with punitive monetary damages. What we need is for public discourse to converge on civility, not suppression.
Open platforms resemble the public square, and the free discussion of politics that takes place on these platforms resembles an open marketplace of ideas. (Schweppe, 2019).
What about free speech? If social media organizations are to be made and held responsible for providing something akin to a digital public square — a forum where any public issue may be discussed within the bounds of public decency and fairness — then won’t our right to free speech be infringed? On any reasonable understanding of these terms, the answer is “No”. The requirement of public decency has always been maintained for public squares. Fairness was introduced in the US in the mid-twentieth century, but appropriately. It was always at least implicitly a requirement of real public squares in any case: any citizen who pulled out a bullhorn and spoke over everyone else would have been hauled off for disturbing the peace.
Democracy depends upon free speech. And it is fitting that it is included in the very first amendment in the US Bill of Rights. But that right has never been absolute, nor can it be. The community decides what constraints to put upon it, but there is no community which allows unfettered a freedom to abuse, incite hatred, or endanger people. Somewhat older style libertarianism asserted individual rights, including speech rights, up to, but not beyond, the boundaries of others’ rights (i.e., there is an obligation to “refrain from violating the rights of others”, van der Fossen, 2019). Since libertarianism recently married neoliberal fanaticism, however, it seems like all constraints are off: individual rights, for example, now extend to refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, that is, to a newly invented right to infect and kill other people. The logical extension of such libertarianism to all varieties of behavior would turn libertarian moral philosophy into Thrasymachus’s “might makes right” — that is, a full-throated cry to be evil.
Oreskes and Conway meticulously trace much of this neoliberal-libertarian fusion back to the monied interests fighting against regulation in the public interest of the lucrative businesses of fossil fuel extraction, agriculture, manufacturing and tobacco. They maximize profits by putting all the burden of their “externalities” — pollution — on the public. Neoliberal libertarianism is a con.
Social media tech companies are playing an extension of that con. They adopt internal policing practices to monitor and control content exactly and only insofar as it is necessary to stave off the kind of regulation I’m calling for here. To the extent that regulation can be forestalled or avoided, the burdens of social media’s externalities can be foisted onto the public. These externalities include the polarization of public debate, the domination of monied interests of that debate through targeted advertising and the Murdoch press, the creation and magnification of extremely damaging conspiracy theories, the promotion of hate over cooperation. We cannot wait another generation to protect the public interest from these con artists.
Social media have grown from nothing to dominating public discussions around the world. They have evaded regulation so far very successfully in most cases. The growth in data collection, the rapid advance of AI technologies, the imminent flourishing of Deep Fake technology, the proven ability of interested parties to initiate and promote disinformation campaigns all point to an urgent and growing need for proper regulation of social media. The goals of such regulation should include at least the protection of personal data, the shackling of disinformation and the curbing of misinformation. The GDPR and the Fairness Doctrine provide some successful models — starting points — for considering such regulations. But the social media themselves are far richer and more far-reaching than the media of the past, spanning the worldwide web, so the regulations required must likewise be worldwide, preferably operating across borders as a neutral international body under international laws.
I thank anonymous reviewers for their helpful criticisms.
United States Supreme Court (1969). RED LION BROADCASTING CO. v. FCC(1969) No. 717 Argued: Decided: June 9, 1969 395 U.S. 367, 89 S. Ct. 1794, 23 L. Ed. 2d 371, 1 Med. L. Rptr. 2053 (1969).
United States Supreme Court (1984). 468 U.S. 364 104 S.Ct. 3106 82 L.Ed.2d 278 FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION v. LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF CALIFORNIA et al. No. 82-912. Supreme Court of the United States Argued Jan. 16, 1984. Decided July 2, 1984.
Many politicians and media personalities continue to cast doubt on the idea that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – the primary driver of current global climate change – could possibly be behind the growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events – the droughts, heatwaves, flooding, etc. that are every year breaking 100 year or greater historical records. This takes the form not just of a straightforward denial of climate change, but also of a more plausible denial of a connection between climate change and individual extreme events. Until ten or five years ago, many climate scientists themselves would have agreed with rejecting such a connection, and some journalists and politicians have followed them and continue following them, even when they have stopped leading anyone in that direction (see box below). Climate scientists have stopped agreeing with this, because in the meantime a new subdiscipline has been developed specifically for attributing extreme weather events to AGW or to natural variation, depending upon the specifics of the case. While it may suit the political preferences of some commentators to ignore this development, it is not in the general interest. Here I present a brief and simple introduction to the main ideas in current work on attributing individual events to global warming. (An even simpler introduction to attribution science, emphasizing legal liability, can be found in Colman, 2019.)
Climate versus Weather
It has become a commonplace to point out that weather is not climate: climate refers to a long-term pattern of weather, not individual events. Usually the point meant is that some hot, or cold, weather is not evidence for, or against, anthropogenic global warming or significant climate change. That, however, is not true. Long-term patterns influence short-term events, whether or not the short-term events are classified as “extreme”. As one of the original researchers on weather attribution put it:
In practice, all we can ever observe directly is weather, meaning the actual trajectory of the system over the climate attractor during a limited period of time. Hence we can never be sure, with finite observations and imperfect models, of what the climate is or how it is changing. (Allen, 2003)
This actually describes the relation between theories (or models, or simulations) and evidence in science quite generally. Claims about the state of the climate are theoretical, rather than observational. Theoretical claims cannot be directly observed to be true or false; but they do give rise to predictions whose probabilities can be calculated and whose outcomes can be observed. The probabilities of those outcomes provide support for and against our theories. There is always some uncertainty, but that pertaining to earth’s rotation around the sun, the disvalue of bleeding sick humans and the reality of AGW have been driven to near zero.
Certainly, larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming but you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that. And the same scientists would agree with that. – Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, 2016
It is problematic to directly attribute individual weather events, such as the current heatwave, to climate change because extreme weather events do occur as a part of natural climate variability. – Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, 2013
The only special difficulty in understanding the relation between climate and weather lies in the high degree of variability in the weather; discerning the signal buried within the stochastic noise is non-trivial (aka “the detection problem”), which is one reason why climate science and data analysis should be relied upon instead of lay persons’ “gut feels”. Denialists often want to play this distinction both ways: when the weather is excessively hot, variability means there is no evidence of AGW; when the weather is excessively cold, that means AGW is not real.
What matters is what the overall trends are, and the overall trends include increasing numbers of new high temperatures being set and decreasing numbers of new low temperatures being set at like locations and seasons, worldwide. For example, that ratio is 2:1 in the US from 2000-2010 (Climate Nexus, 2019). Or more generally, we see this in the continuing phenomenon of the latest ten years including nine of the 10 hottest years globally on record (NOAA “Global Climate Report 2018”).
The analogy with the arguments about tobacco and cancer is a strong one. For decades, tobacco companies claimed that since the connection between smoking and cancers is stochastic (probabilistic, uncertain), individual cases of cancer could never be attributed to smoking, so liability in individual cases could not be proven (aka “the attribution problem”). The tobacco companies lost that argument: specific means of causal attribution have been developed for smoking (e.g., “relative risk”, which is closely related to the methods discussed below for weather attribution; O’Keefe et al., 2018). Likewise, there are now accepted methods of attributing weather events to global warming, which I will describe below.
Rejecting the connection between weather and climate, aside from often being an act of hypocrisy, implies a rejection of the connection between evidence and theory: ultimately, it leads to a rejection of science and scientific method.
Weather Severity Is Increasing
Logically before attributing extreme weather to human activity (“attribution”) comes finding that extreme weather is occurring more frequently than is natural (“detection”). Denialism regarding AGW of course extends to denialism of such increasing frequency of weather extremes. There are two main kinds of evidence of the worsening of weather worldwide.
Direct evidence includes straightforward measurements of weather. For example, measurements of the worldwide average temperature anomalies (departures from the mean temperature over some range of years) themselves have the extreme feature of showing ever hotter years, as noted above (NOAA “Global Climate Report 2018”). Simple statistics will report many of these kinds of measurements as exceedingly unlikely on the “null hypothesis” that the climate isn’t changing. More dramatic evidence comes in the form of increased frequency and intensity of flooding, droughts, etc. (IPCC AR5 WG2 Technical Summary 2014, Section A-1). There is considerable natural variability in such extremes, meaning there is some uncertainty about some types of extreme weather. The NOAA, for example, refuses to commit to there being any increased frequency or intensity of tropical storms; however, many other cases of extreme weather are clear and undisputed by scientists, as we shall see.
Indirect evidence includes claims and costs associated with insuring businesses, private properties and lives around the world. While the population size and the size of economies around the world have been increasing along with CO2 in the atmosphere – resulting in increased insurance exposure – the actual costs of natural disasters have increased at a rate greater than the simple economic increase would explain (see Figure 1). In consequence, for example, “many insurers are throwing out decades of outdated weather actuarial data and hiring teams of in-house climatologists, computer scientists and statisticians to redesign their risk models.” (Hoffman, 2018).The excess increase in costs, i.e., that beyond the underlying increase in the value of infrastructure and goods, can be attributed to climate change, as can the excess increase (beyond inflation) in the rates charged by insurers.
Another category of indirect argument for the increasing severity of weather comes from the theory of anthropogenic global warming itself. AGW implies a long-term shift in weather as the world heats, which in turn implies a succession of “new normals” – more extreme weather becoming normal until even more extreme weather replaces that norm – and hence a greater frequency of extreme weather events from the point of view of the old normal. In other words, everything that supports AGW, from validated general circulation models (GCMs) to observations, supports a general case that a variety of weather extremes is growing in frequency, intensity or both.
Is Anthropogenic Global Warming Real?
So, AGW implies an increase in many kinds of extreme weather; hence evidence for AGW also amounts to evidence that increases in extreme weather are real. That raises the question of AGW and the evidence for it. This article isn’t the best place to address this issue, so I’d simply like to remind people of a few basic points, in case, for example, you’re talking with someone rational:
Skepticism and denialism are not the same. Skeptics test claims to knowledge; denialists deny them. No (living) philosophical skeptic, for example, would refuse to look around before attempting to cross a busy road.
Science lives and breathes by skeptical challenges to received opinions. That’s not the same as holding all scientific propositions in equal contempt. Our technical civilization – almost everything about it – was generated by applying established science. It is not activists who are hypocrites for using trains, the internet and cars to spread their message; the hypocrites are those who use the same technology, but deny the science behind that technology.
Denialism requires adopting the belief that thousands of scientists from around the world are conspiring together to perpetrate a lie upon the public. David Grimes has an interesting probabilistic analysis of the longevity of unrevealed conspiracies (in which insiders have not blabbed about it), estimating that a climate conspiracy of this kind would require about 400,000 participants and its probability of enduring beyond a year or two is essentially zero [Grimes, 2016]. The lack of an insider revealing such a conspiracy is compelling evidence that there is no such conspiracy, in other words.
The Detection of Extreme Weather
The first issue to consider here is what to count as extreme weather – effectively a “Detection Problem” of distinguishing the “signal” of climate change from the “noise” of natural variation. The usual answer is to identify some probability threshold such that a kind of event having that probability on the assumption of a “null hypothesis” of natural variation would count as extreme. Different researchers will identify different thresholds. We might take, for example, a 1% chance of occurrence in a time interval under “natural” conditions as a threshold (which is not quite the same as a 1-in-100 interval event, by the way). “Natural” here needs to mean the conditions which would prevail were AGW not happening; ordinarily the average pre-industrial climate is taken as describing those conditions, since the few hundred years since then is too short a time period for natural processes to have changed earth’s climate much, going on historical observations (chapter 4, Houghton, 2009). The cycle of ice ages works, for example, on periods of tens of thousands of years.
Of course, a one percent event will happen eventually. But the additional idea here, which I elaborate upon below, is to compare the probability of an event happening under the assumption of natural variation to its probability assuming anthropogenic global warming. The latter probability I will write P(E|AGW) – the probability of event E assuming that AGW is known to be true; the former I will write P(E|¬AGW) – the probability of E assuming that AGW is known to be false. These kinds of probabilities (of events given some hypothesis) are called likelihoods in statistics. The likelihood ratio of interest is P(E|¬AGW)/P(E|AGW); the extent to which this ratio falls short of 1 (assuming it does) is the extent to which the occurence of the extreme event supports the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis versus the alternative no warming (natural variation only) hypothesis. (The inverse ratio is also known as “relative risk” in, e.g., epidemiology, where analogous attribution studies are done.) A single such event may not make much of a difference to our opinion about global warming, but a glut of them, which is what we have seen over the decades, leaves adherence to a non-warming world hypothesis simply a manifestation of irrationality. As scientists are not, for the most part, irrational, that is exactly why the scientific consensus on global warming is so strong.
Varieties of Extreme Weather
There is a large variety of types of extreme weather which appear likely to have been the result of global warming. A recent IPCC study found the following changes at the global scale likely to very likely to have been caused by AGW: increases in the length and frequency of heat waves, increases in surface temperature extremes (both high and low), increased frequency of floods. They express low confidence in observed increases in the intensity of tropical cyclones – which does not mean that they don’t believe it, but that the evidence, while supporting the claim, is not sufficiently compelling. On the other hand, there is no evidence for increased frequency of cyclones (Seneviratne et al., 2017). They don’t address other extremes, but the frequency (return period) and intensity of droughts, increases in ocean extreme temperatures, and increases in mean land and ocean temperatures have elsewhere been attributed to AGW (some references below).
In addition to measurements of extreme events, there is some theoretical basis for predicting their greater occurrence. For example, changes to ocean temperatures, and especially ice melt changing the density of water in the Arctic, are known to affect ocean currents, which, depending upon the degree of change, will have likely affects on weather patterns (e.g., NOAA, 2019). Again, warmer air is well known to hold more water vapor, leading to larger precipitation events, resulting in more floods (Coumou and Ramstorf, 2012). Warmer water feeds cyclonic storms, likely increasing their intensity, if not their frequency (e.g., Zielinski, 2015).
Causal Attribution Theory
If we can agree that detection has occurred – that is, that weather extremes are increasing beyond what background variability would explain – then we need to move on to attribution, explaining that increase. There will always be some claiming that individual events that are “merely” probabilistically related to causes can never be explained in terms of those causes. For example, insurers and manufacturers and their spokespersons can often be heard to say such things as that, while asbestos (smoking, etc.) causes cancer – raising its probability – this individual case of cancer could never be safely attributed to the proposed cause. This stance is contradicted by both the theory and practice of causal attribution.
What is Causation?
The traditional philosophy of causation, going back arguably to Aristotle and certainly to David Hume, was a deterministic theory that attempted to find necessary and sufficient conditions for one event to be a cause of another. That analytic approach to philosophy was itself exemplified in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, which, ironically, were mostly dialogues showing the futility of trying to capture concepts in a tight set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Nevertheless, determinism dominated both philosophy and society at large for many centuries. It took until the rise of probabilistic theories within science, and especially that of quantum theory, before a deterministic understanding of causality began to lose its grip, first to the wholly philosophical movement of “probabilistic causality” and subsequently the development of probabilistic artificial intelligence – Bayesian network technology – which subsumed probabilistic causal theories and applied computational modeling approaches to the philosophical theory of causality. Formal probabilistic theories of causal attribution have flowed out of this research. The defences of inaction or a refusal to pay out insurance reliant upon deterministic causality are at least a century out of date.
Instead I will describe an accepted theory of causal attribution in climate science, which provides a clear criterion for ascribing extreme weather events to AGW.
The most widely used attribution method for extreme weather is the Fraction of Attributable Risk (FAR) for ascribing a portion of the responsibility of an event to AGW (Stott et al., 2004). It has a clear interpretation and justification, and it has the advantage of presenting attribution as a percentage of responsibility, similar to percentages of explained variation in statistics (as Sewall Wright, 1934, pioneered). That is, it can apportion, e.g., 80% of the responsibility of a flooding event to AGW and 20% to natural variation (¬AGW) in some particular case, which makes intuitive sense. So, I will primarily discuss FAR in reference to attributing specific events to AGW. It should be borne in mind, however, that there are alternative attribution methods with good claims to validity (including my own, currently in development, based upon Korb et al., 2011), as well as some criticism of FAR in the scientific literature. The methodological science of causal attribution is not as settled as the science of global warming more generally, but is clear enough to support the claims of climate scientists that extreme weather is increasing due to climate change and in many individual cases can be directly attributed to that climate change.
FAR compares the probability of an extreme event E under AGW – i.e., P(E|AGW) – and under a “null hypothesis” of no global warming (the negation of AGW, i.e., ¬AGW), by taking their ratio in:
FAR = 1 – P(E|¬AGW)/P(E|AGW)
As is common in statistics, E is taken as the set of events of a certain extremity or greater. For example, if there is a day in some region, say Sydney, Australia, with a high temperature of 48.9, then E would be the set of days with highs ≥ 48.9.
Assuming there are no “acts of god”, any event can be 100% attributed to prior causes; that is, the maximum proportion of risk that could possibly be explained is 1. FAR splits that attribution into two parts, that reflecting AGW and that reflecting everything else, i.e., natural variation in a pre-industrial climate (e.g., Schaller et al., 2016); it does so by subtracting from the maximum 1 that proportion that can fairly be allocated to the null hypothesis. To take a simple example (see Figure 2), suppose we are talking about an event with a 1% chance, assuming no AGW; i.e., P(E|¬AGW) = 0.01. Suppose that in fact AGW has raised the chances ten-fold; that is, P(E|AGW) = 0.1. Then the proportion FAR attributes to the null hypothesis is 0.01/0.1 = 0.1, and the fraction FAR attributes to AGW is the remainder, namely 0.9. Since AGW has raised the probability of events of this particular extremity – of E’s kind – 10 fold, it indeed seems fair to attribute 10% of the causation to natural variation and 90% to unnatural variation.
In order to compute FAR, we first need these probabilities of the extreme event. It’s natural to wonder where they come from, since we are talking about extreme events, and thus unlikely events that we wouldn’t have had the time and opportunity to measure. (To be sure, if good statistics have been collected historically, they may be used, especially for estimating P(E|¬AGW); some studies cited below have done that.) In fact, however, these likelihoods are derivable from the theories themselves, or simulations that represent such theories. GCMs are used to model anthropogenic global warming scenarios with different assumptions about the extent to which human economic behavior changes in the future, or fails to change. If we are interested in current extreme events, we can use such a model without any of the future scenarios: sampling the GCM model for the present will tell us how likely events of type E will be under current circumstances, with AGW. But we can also use the model to estimate P(E|¬AGW) by running it without the past human history of climate forcing, to see how likely E would be without humanity’s contributions. Since the GCMs are well validated, this is a perfectly good way to obtain the necessary likelihoods. (However, some caveats are raised below.)
Since individual weather events occur in specific locations, or at least specific regions, in order to best estimate the probabilities of such events, GCMs are typically used in combination with regional weather models, which can achieve greater resolutions than GCMs alone. (GCMs can also be modified to have finer resolutions over a particular region.) Regional models have been improving more rapidly than GCMs in recent years, which is one reason that FAR attributions are becoming both more accurate and more common (e.g., Black et al., 2016).
Attribution of Individual Weather Events
Thus, there is a growing body of work attributing specific extreme weather events to anthropogenic global warming using FAR, which represents the “fraction” of responsibility that an event of the given extremity, or greater, can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming versus natural variation in a pre-industrial climate. Much of this work is being coordinated and publicized by the World Weather Attribution organization, which is a consortium of research organizations around the world.
I note some recent examples of FAR attributions (with confidence intervals for the estimates when reported up front). I do not intend to explain these specific attributions here; you can follow the links, which lead to summary reports explaining them. Those summaries cite the formal academic publications, which detail the methods and simulations used and the relevant statistics concerning the results.
Flooding from tropical storm Imelda in September, 2019: FAR of 0.505 (± 0.12) (World Weather Attribution, 2019). [Note: This was not reported as FAR, but in likelihoods; conversion to FAR is straightforward. Links are to specific reports, which themselves link to academic publications.]
Heatwave in Germany and the UK, July, 2019: FAR between 0.67 and 0.9. The FAR for other parts of Europe were higher (but not specified in their summary) (World Weather Attribution, 2019).
Drought in the Western Cape of South Africa from 2015-2017, leading to a potential “Day Zero” for Cape Town, when the water would run out (averted by rainfall in June, 2018). This extreme drought had an estimated FAR of about 0.67 (World Weather Attribution, 2019).
Extreme rainfall events in New Zealand from 2007-2017: FARs ranging from 0.10 to 0.40 (± 0.20 in each case). These fractions accounted for NZ$140.5M in insured costs, which was computed by multiplying the FARs with actual recorded costs (Noy, 2019). [NB: uninsured and non-dollar costs are ignored.] The application of FARs to compute responsibility for insurance costs by economists is a new initiative.
The 2016 marine heatwave that caused severe bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was estimated to have a FAR of about 0.95 for maximum temperature and about 0.99 for duration of the heatwave by Oliver et al. (2018). Their report is part of an (approximately) annual report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that reports on a prior year’s extreme weather events attributable to human factors, the latest of which is Herring et al. (2018), a collection of thirty reports on events of 2016.
A recent review – re-examining FAR calculations via new simulations – of three dozen studies of droughts, heat waves, cold waves and precipitation events found numerous substantial FARs, ranging up to 0.99 in many cases, as well as a few with inverted FARs, indicating some events made less likely by anthropogenic global warming (Angélil et al., 2017).
The recent fires in Australia are being given a FAR analysis as I write this (see https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/bushfires-in-australia-2019-2020/). There is widespread agreement that the intensity of wildfires is increasing, and that the fire seasons in which they take place are lengthening. Fire simulation models capable of incorporating the observed consquences of climate change (droughts, heatwaves, etc.) are in use and can be applied to this kind of estimation, although that is not yet being done. The forthcoming analysis is limited to the precursors of the fires, drought and heat, but also including the Forest fire Weather Index (from a personal communication).
Despite the apparent precision of some of these FAR estimates, they all come with confidence intervals, i.e., ranges within which we would expect to find the true value. They are not all recorded above, but those who wish to find them can go to the original sources.
Another kind of uncertainty applies to these estimates, concerning the variations in the distributions used to estimate FARs such as those of Figure 2. Some suggest that AGW itself brings a greater variation in the weather, fattening the tails of any probability distribution over weather events, and so making extremes on both sides more likely. So, for example Figure 2 might more properly show a flatter (fatter) distribution associated withAGW, in addition to being shifted to the right of the distribution for ¬AGW. This, however, would not affect the appropriateness of a FAR estimation: whether the likelihood ratio for E is determined by a shift in mean, a change in the tails, or both, that ratio nevertheless correctly reports the probabilities of the observed weather event relative to each alternative.
A potentially more pointed criticism is that GCMs may be more variable than the real weather (e.g., Osborn, 2004). Higher variability implies reaching extremes more often (on both ends of the scale). This is exacerbated if using multiple GCMs in an ensemble prediction. Such increased variance may apply more to simulations of AGW than to ¬AGW, although that’s unclear. In any case, this is a fair criticism and suggests somewhat greater uncertainty in FAR attributions than may have been reported. It would be best addressed by improved validation of GCMs, whether individually or in ensemble. The science of weather attribution is relatively new and not entirely settled; nevertheless, the methods and results in qualitative terms are well tested and clear. Many individual extreme weather events can be attributed largely to human-induced climate change.
The Future of Extreme Weather
The future of extreme weather appears to be spectacular. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence for the existence and continued development of anthropogenic global warming, and the clear evidence of tepid commitment or positive opposition to action from political leaders around the world, climate change is not just baked in for the next few decades, but is likely to be accelerating during that time. The baking period will be the few hundred years thereafter. Extreme pessimism, however, should be discouraged. It really does matter just when, and how, national, regional and global activities to reduce or reverse greenhouse gas emissions are undertaken. Our choices could well determine whether we face only severe difficulties, or instead global chaos, or perhaps civilizational collapse, or even human extinction. It is certain that earth’s biosphere will recover to some equilibrium eventually; it’s not so certain whether that equilibrium will include us.
For the short term, at least, climate science will continue to make progress, including improved understanding of weather attribution. Our current understanding is already good enough to give strong support to the case for action, as put in a recent excellent review of the state of the art in weather attribution circa 2015 or so:
Event attribution studies … have shown clear evidence for human influence having increased the probability of many extremely warm seasonal temperatures and reduced the probability of extremely cold seasonal temperatures in many parts of the world. The evidence for human influence on the probability of extreme precipitation events, droughts, and storms is more mixed. (Stott et al., 2016)
As I’ve shown above, since that review, attribution research has been extended to show considerable human influence on many cases of extreme rainfall, droughts and storms. While uncertainties remain, as regional and dynamic circulation models continue to improve, it seems certain that extreme weather attributions to anthropogenic causes will become both more pervasive and more definite in the near future. These improvements will enable us to better target our efforts at adaptation, as well as better understand the moral and legal responsibility for the damage done by unabated emissions.
Despite well-funded and entrenched opposition, we must push ahead with parallel projects to reduce, reverse and adapt to the drivers of climate change, in order to minimize the damage to our heirs, as well as to our future selves.
I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Steven Mascaro, Erik P Nyberg, Bruce Marcot, Lloyd Allison and anonymous reviewers to earlier versions of this article.
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We have known collectively the dangers posed by the combination of modern civilization and human population growth since at least the 1960s. During that decade Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb (1968), which carried forward Thomas Malthus’s argument from the 19th century that exponential population growth models apply as much to humans as to other life forms and that relaxing the natural limits on resources and their utilization would provide only temporary material comforts soon overwhelmed by an expanding population. In The Limits of Growth (1972) the Club of Rome computer modelers expanded on these ideas by developing and testing a simulation of human population and economic activity incorporating natural resources and pollution. While their model was crude by recent standards, it did behave in qualitatively sensible ways. The story it told was that however you varied the inputs, e.g., extending resource limits or slowing population growth rates, if you stayed within anything like reasonable bounds, then the model showed a collapse of the population, through impossible levels of pollution, say, sometime during the 21st century. Neither of these pivotal books dealt with anthropogenic global warming explicitly, but the message was clear and still hasn’t changed: unfettered population and economic growth, at least on the models of both we have so far adopted, will be a disaster for our species and our environment. Nothing much has changed.
Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen Ed Markey’s Green New Deal (GND) seeks genuine change. It’s modeled on Franklin Delano Rooseveldt’s New Deal in the sense that FDR’s New Deal radically changed America for generations. The name also evokes the mobilization behind the World War II effort that happened shortly thereafter. The point is that radical mobilization efforts are eminently possible when the threat to a nation is existential, and human-driven climate change certainly poses an existential threat. The GND, if passed, would be a clear, resounding dual statement of intent: first, the intent to counter the threat to civilization posed by the combination of human population growth and current economic activities; second, a more local statement of intent of achieving economic and political justice for American minorities.
The bill is strictly aspirational, calling out the urgency of the situation, rather than laying out a specific pathway. It’s stated goals are not of a kind that could lead to direct actions. GND shares with Extinction Rebellion a common view of the urgency of the situation and the optimism that if there is a common will to respond, that we can do something worthwhile to diminish the worst outcomes of anthropogenic global warming.
Some of the Main Goals laid out in the GND are:
Guaranteed jobs with family-sustaining wages for all people of the US
Maximizing the energy efficiency of all existing buildings in the US
Moving to electric cars and high-speed rail and away from air transport
Universal health care
Moving to sustainable farming
Moving to 100% renewable energy
Of course, the introduction of the GND has provoked a vigorous response from opponents. The most prominent objection, perhaps, is that it would be too expensive to be practicable. Certainly, refurbishing every building in America to maximize energy efficiency can’t be cheap. The obvious rebuttal, however, has been voiced by Greta Thunberg and other young activists: inaction will be far more expensive than action. Indeed, the GND in its initial Whereas’s states that inaction will lead to $500B in lost annual economic output in the US by 2100. Such a sum applied now, on the other hand, would clearly make a strong start to doing something about climate change. Aside from that, any dollar estimate of harm is never going to be a worst case estimate, since severe climate change is fully capable not just of direct economic impacts, but also of spurring warfare and social collapse, in ways where the real valuations entirely outstrip the speculative dollar valuations of harm. The right wing who harp about the expense are simply not yet prepared to think clearly about the consequences of the choices in front of us. (In my view, it is well past time that the decision bypass the obstruction.)
The whole point of the GND is that what is practicable depends upon the context, and what is practicable in times of war is of an entirely different scale to what is practicable in normal times. We are not in normal times. This is a time of war, and our enemy is us.
Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a fine entertainment. This derivative effort is intended to be at least mildly didactic, while no doubt being a little less amusing. The abuse of language for political effect has been going on a long while, but has accelerated in recent times, with the rise to large-scale dominance of the media by right wing ideologues. Let us all do a little something about it, at least by speaking and writing properly.
The innate behavior of liberal politicians and activists in advocating
for the commonwealth, environmental sustainability or any regulation
Of course, the real meaning is the act of dishonest dealing in return
for money or private gain, typically taking advantage of a position of
power. The abuse of the word “corruption” has become typical of Trump
and the Murdoch press. See, e.g., http://www.factcheck.org/2016/10/a-false-corruption-claim/
Showing respect and common decency towards minorities or disadvantaged people, especially by leftists; a refusal to demonstrate the manly virtues of machismo, sexism, misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry.
While the term “politically correct” was used by the left in a self-deprecating way in the 1970s, it has been appropriated by the right wing since to disparage those who supposedly go over the top in avoiding embarrassment to minorities, etc. The term is typically applied in response to someone simply showing ordinary courtesy and decency, revealing the lack thereof in the critic.
Government action to hobble its own ability to protect and promote the public interest, usually promoted on the grounds that government powers are abused and harmful. The latter is often true, especially when in pursuit of “reform”.
To reform something is to improve it, by, for example, removing obstacles to its proper function. But right wing politicians and media apply it when their intent is to undermine or defeat proper function.
Someone who opposes the obscenely rich taking full advantage of their wealth, for example, by wanting to tax them for the welfare of the commonwealth.
In the common usage in the rightwing media, many who endorse regulated capitalist markets are routinely denounced as socialists, e.g., Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders (who, admittedly, falsely labels himself a socialist, without any implied denunciation). But socialists properly understood advocate public ownership and control of the means of production and oppose capitalist markets. Any dictionary will confirm this, but rightwing media commentators are not often found referring to dictionaries or other reliable sources of information.
I have decided to support the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) program against the state of Israel. The goal of the program is to bring an end to illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, allow Palestinians to live in their homes unmolested and free from military or militia attacks and to bring fully equal democratic rights to Palestinians living inside Israel. Israel is occupying Palestinian land and operating there in ways violating international law, including building its wall of separation and allowing Jewish settlements to displace Palestinians. At least until Israel begins to abide by international law, I shall abide by the general provisions of BDS, meaning I shall not knowingly purchase Israeli goods, invest in Israeli companies, visit or support Israel as a state. I look forward to the day when I can reverse my position.
Boycotts are, clearly, blunt instruments. However, they have been effective in the past. Furthermore, I have been informally using them all my life, avoiding wherever possible, for example, the use or purchase of Microsoft products, on such grounds as that they demonstrate unethical business practices, including even stupid practices, such as refusing to support their own prior customers after developing new versions of software. Of course, I do use Microsoft products, because others keep forcing me to do so; but I minimize my use of them, and I encourage others to do the same. Similarly, I do not support PayPal or Amazon, because they’ve acted against one of the few who have directly supported principles of democratic freedom as they apply in the Internet age, Edward Snowden. Boycotts are blunt, but effective instruments, and I will continue to use them.
I’m willing to listen and respond to sensible counterarguments. But arguments that the UN or the International Court are the homes of conspiracies against Israel or the US needn’t be put; they are stupid and pointless. Arguments that Hamas is an evil organization will probably be coherent and correct, but also red herrings. The issue in question is Israel and its actions.
And, by the way, the state of Australia is also systematically violating international law, by, for example, refusing to receive and properly process the claims of refugees, as required by the Refugee Convention. I abhor the actions of my own government and would welcome a BDS movement against it, since I think pressure to change its policies, or better yet its government, are most welcome!
I recently came across the Dover reprint of Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. While it is an interesting collection of words Bierce thought were improperly used, I cannot recommend it. It has some use as a guide to closely related words confused with one another, but for that purpose I would recommend instead SI Hayakawa’s Choose the Right Word. Otherwise, it is largely filled with Bierce’s inability to understand metaphors, or to appreciate and accept common idioms, or to accept linguistic change. To satisfy a taste for disagreeable linguistic prejudices, Strunk & White is at least equally good. But Bierce’s book reminded me of a need for an analogous list of words: those that have recently become whips in the hands of abusive politicians and their slavish media (or is it the other way round?). So, here I begin to list some of those I find both common and objectionable, and why I find them objectionable. I hope to return from time to time and enhance it.
The idea, by the way, is to deal with the misuse of words that has a political intent. Most misuses do not arise from a political ulterior motive, but from a simple lack of clear thinking about what one is saying. An example is the use of “literal” to mean metaphorical. I won’t be going into such things here. By the way, the classic treatment of the political abuse of language is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. It’s well worth reading, but times change and so does language, despite the resistance of types like Bierce.
Climate Change. The right word is “global warming”, of course, or “GW” to be informal. The case for global warming was made a long time ago, and the idea that 7 billion and more humans operating at a high-burn economically can do so without impacting on their environment is about as stupid as a dog crapping in its own den. There aren’t many dogs that stupid, but there seem to be plenty of people to match them. To cater for them, their prejudices or their special interests the media needs a special language to euphemize discussions of GW; hence, “climate change”. It sounds so natural and inevitable (as Marco Rubio says, “climate is always evolving,” in a strange metaphor for an evolution skeptic − or anyone else). However, changes are sometimes permanent, which could be scary, so let’s change it to “climate variability”, which sounds impermanent and innocuous. Oh yes, let’s. That’s what the Coal-ition Victorian government has apparently ordered its employees in the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to use (note the reorganized name: putting environmental concerns in their proper place!). It’s a pity that so many environmentalists and others who take GW seriously regurgitate this mealy-mouthed language.
Entitlement. Joe Hockey’s promised to end the “Age of Entitlement”. The problem here is not so much the word as the corruption of its meaning. Entitlements are those things one has a right to or has earned. Why would any politician want to take away things people are actually entitled to? Hockey isn’t suggesting that: he’s promising to take away things people aren’t entitled to, in his opinion, such as, in particular, his money and the money of other rich people taken away in taxes. Smokin’ Joe should really be talking about taking away people’s Unentitlements, but then perhaps people would notice that they are actually entitled to them, which could be embarrassing for him.
Exceptional. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his fawning Democracy in America, US politicians have fallen all over themselves describing the US as exceptionally, nay, extraordinarily, nay, fantabulously wonderfulistic. It has become a sine qua non for being elected President. When I was little, I actually thought to myself “how lucky I am to have been born here.” There’s nothing exceptional about that thought: every country is full of people having it. The only things exceptional about American exceptionalism is how ordinary it is and how loud it is. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Genocide. It seems the murder of everybody and his uncle has become genocide in recent years. The media are constantly turning massacres into genocides, but the word means the attempted, or actual, extermination of a people, nation or ethnicity, as any decent dictionary will tell you. The bastadardization of its use makes cases of real genocide seem more acceptable, or at least more usual. It should be resisted.
Illegals. Our political leaders of both parties are quick to denounce refugees arriving in Australian waters as illegals. This is so despite the fact that numerous legal experts have reported to them that there is nothing illegal about them. Tony Abbott, and others, then claim that its their arrival that’s illegal, rather than the people, harking back to the “queue jumping” claims of prior governments. But that claim is just as false. Refugees, by definition, have to leave the place where they and their like are being tortured, murdered or abused. That means they have to reach some place new. And that means that some place new must be reached first. So much Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald appears to accept, but you can listen to him here blithely expressing the shameful point of view that such a place could not possibly be Australia: there are millions of people waiting their turn to come to Australia in squalid refugee camps “right around the world”, but those who come to Australia first to have their claims assessed are acting illegally. The honourable Senator simply ignores the point that they have to get some place first and that international law allows for that place to be Australia. In the world view of this government, Australia is uniquely free of any legal obligations normally incumbent upon those who agree to international treaties. It is an exceptionalism that exceeds in its way that current in the US. Well, I’m sure they don’t actually believe that; they are simply posturing for a gullible public and an even more gullible media. The correct word is “refugee“.
Pro-Life. “Pro-lifers” are pro-fetus and anti-women, of course. Recently, Senator Marco Rubio, in a round about attack on the GW consensus in science, declared that there is not just a scientific consensus that life begins at conception, but that it is a unanimous consensus. This, were it true, would offer genuine support for the self-promoting label anti-women campaigners have adopted. The immediate reaction to Rubio may be that words longer than three syllables may be too long for Rubio to handle; but no, Rubio seems to have actually meant it. But there is no consensus in science or philosophy as to what life is, or when it begins or ends. Instead, there are practical rules of thumb that get used in hospitals, such as cessation of brain activity or external viability of a fetus (not conception). In any case, a claim of unanimity is defeated by a single counter-example, and since Rubio’s strange expression of ignorance there have been many scientists objecting, so the claim is immediately defeated. This, of course, won’t stop right-wing obscurantists from claiming otherwise. Let’s call these people what they are: misogynists.
Reform. This has become a favored term for change, because it has favorable connotations. To reform something is to improve it, by, for example, removing obstacles to its proper function. But a government introducing as a “reform” a reduction in taxes for the rich should not be allowed to get away with this language unless they can justify it, as with a serious argument that the taxes removed were excessive, rather than an ideological commitment to the view that all taxes for the rich are excessive.
Socialism. I was surprised to read in the Los Angeles Times recently that Obama is a socialist. It’s pretty usual for right-wing hate mongers to say such things, but I expected a once-reputable newspaper to do a little better. The correct term, in many cases of word abuse, is “social democrat”: someone who believes that there is a place for a government to support social democracy by using its power to tax for the benefit of the commonwealth. “Socialism” by contrast refers to a theory that the best way to organize society is to give the means of production and distribution entirely to the state, which is hardly a view that industry-promoter Obama shares. There aren’t many socialists left these days, as the failure of the Soviet Union and similar enterprises has been taken by most, leftists included, that socialism is at best impractical and at worst pernicious. Many right wingers fail to notice the current absence of socialists, since everyone to left of neutral looks the same to them. The rest of us needn’t encourage their fantasies, however.
Terrorism. Every attack or act of violence attributable to Arabs or Muslims can nowadays freely be called terrorism. Any similar act by others is just “random violence” or an act of lunacy (see Bernard Keane’s “Why white terrorism isn’t terrorism”). But terrorism is political violence intended to terrorize, so, for example, the explicitly political murder of two police officers in Las Vegas by a white couple was clearly an act of terrorism. Yet the language of news reports is one of “shootings” or, perhaps, at most “shooting rampage”. Terrorists aren’t white, unless they have beards and rant about the Koran, or else were French and long dead. But, once again, decrepit, old, white, male commentators need not be accommodated.
The People. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The claim that “the people” refers to individuals is either ignorance or a lie. “The people” is a collective noun, referring to a collective. Of course, there are sentences and contexts where the phrase has the meaning gun sellers, manufacturers and nuts prefer to substitute for its actual meaning in the constitution. “The people were bamboozled by specious arguments” implies that everyone concerned was bamboozled. But there is no such usage in the second amendment. As if this wasn’t clear enough, the amendment specifically sets the context by reference to a well-regulated militia. Lone gun nuts shooting people in cinemas were not what the writers of the constitution had in mind, whatever a right-wing packed Supreme Court may say about it. We The People: Take Back Our Language!
Combat semantic abuse: don’t let Murdoch and his political minions own the debate! If you spot linguistic abuse, please make a comment; I’ll be happy to add it to my list if it fits my criteria (which are not actually politically biased, despite my own political bias).
In a recent blog post, Tim Wilson, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, has defended Tony Abbott’s new rules restricting public servants in their political speech. In particular, he argues that it is not a genuine limitation of their speech and that it is a reasonable rule to impose on their employment. Here I will illustrate the process of argument analysis by a treatment of his argument. A prior caveat, however: there are always multiple, distinct ways of analysing arguments; and they will often be equally defensible. The goal of argument analysis is not to find a single, definitive argument which conclusively establishes a correct conclusion. (The plea for “proof” is a pretty good indicator of an absence of integrity in an argument!) The goal is to improve your argumentation and your thinking. Finality is a goal best reserved for the grave.
Tim Wilson’s Arguments
For the sake of brevity I will paraphrase Wilson’s arguments here. While excluding what is irrelevant to these two arguments in particular, the paraphrase is pretty accurate, as is easily determined by reference to the original. Also, I number the assertions and put them in blockquotes, although they are not literal quotes.
Argument 1: The New Rule Does Not Limit Free Speech
(1) The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has released new social media protocols. (2) The protocols limit the capacity of public servants to make political statements that are harsh or extreme in their criticism. (3) Employment codes are not law, and (4) so cannot constitute a legal limit on free speech. (5) Defending the universal human right of free speech is about the legal limits of speech.
Argument 2: The New Rule Is a Reasonable Employment Rule
(1) Codes of conduct provide an important civilizing role in filling gaps left by the law. For example, (2) codes of conduct restrict homophobic behavior. (3) Employment codes are not limiting, (4) since an employee may at any time resign. (5) What is specifically precluded by the new code is harsh and extreme criticism in areas that are related to their work.
I will apply the AA process only to the first argument, in order to keep this illustration of method reasonably short and clear.
Step 1: Clarify Meanings
Tim Wilson begins his post by pointing out that we should know something of what we talk about prior to opening our mouths: “Before anyone screams ‘free speech’, they should actually know what they are talking about.” The implied criticism of his critics, that they don’t know what they are talking about, is nowhere substantiated by Mr Wilson. However, the challenge is worth accepting.
So, what is free speech? Literally taken, it might be a right to say whatever you have the urge to say. In practice, however, as Wilson and every other commentator has noted, there are accepted limits upon speech. So, whatever right to speech we may be referring to is, and always has been, a limited right.
Freedom of speech as a right certainly has been recognized from long ago, for example, in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and before that in ancient Greece, as John Milton noted in his famous defence of free speech, in Areopagitica. Free speech is recognized as fundamental in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is notable also that the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights in the United States explicitly protects freedom of speech and a free press. Every democracy depends upon a free debate over public policy and principles, so attacks upon free speech are indirectly attacks upon democracy as well.
Nevertheless, it is perfectly well and widely accepted that there are proper limits on free speech. Speech that is likely to be hazardous or harmful to others is generally prohibited. Defamation and libel are also generally prohibited. And contracts may prohibit certain kinds of speech, such as the disclosure of proprietary information, as Wilson specifically notes. So, there is a real question whether Wilson’s defence of Abbott’s new rules is legitimate or not. Any reflex dismissal of it is a wrong reflex.
I have no particular unclarities about Wilson’s language, although I will return to some of the semantics later. I will also note that Wilson makes no distinction between “legal limits” on speech and “limits” on speech. That is, his post equivocates between them, attempting to support the claim that there are no limits imposed on free speech by Abbott’s actions because they do not impose any such limits in law. That inference is specious nonsense, of course.
There is a relevant background to this issue. Tony Abbott and his government now have a track record of restricting freedom of speech and the flow of relevant public information in ways that at least suggest they fear public scrutiny of their actions. When the ABC reported on evidence of the mistreatment of refugees by the Royal Australian Navy, Abbott labeled them “Un-Australian”; many of his ministers also condemned the ABC, and they have suggested its funding and role should be curtailed. On any matters connected to dealing with refugees, Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison routinely invokes the cover of protecting military “operations” in refusing to address many questions, perhaps out of fear, for example, that smugglers might learn whether they have sent a boat to Australia. It seems likely that putting border protection and the handling of refugees under military control was, in part, designed to restrict public knowledge of the government’s activities. But, of course, issues of sovereignty and support for international law are pretty central to the public policy of a democracy. If anything is Un-Australian, it would have to be suppressing public debate about public policy.
Step 2: Identify Propositions
Step 3: Graph the Argument
Argument 1 might be graphed as:
This shows its radical incompleteness. (1) is just setting context, identifying what protocols are at issue. The conclusion here is implicit, so the graph is quite fragmentary; the conclusion is in the argument’s title, so just numbering that (6) and making obvious connections we get a much better representation of the argument:
A few observations on graphing are in order. This graph is just a quick Google hack, but there are more sophisticated tools for the purpose, such as Austhink’s Rationale. That tool will give you some syntactic sugar that you may find useful; for example, it colors supporting links green and contrary arguments red. Here I’m inventing two small pieces of syntax: a dotted line for context setting that’s not really part of the argument; arrows joining together to show that a conjunction of premises is required for support. To be sure, (2) is also required for the inference to (6), but it is less closely associated with (4) and (5). If you have a disjunctive argument, such as “X or Y → Z”, you might want to show that clearly as well, using color or dotted lines, etc.
Step 4: Make it Valid
We now tackle the argument one subargument at a time. (3) → (4) is presumably not controversial, but it is certainly not, strictly speaking, valid. Dr Neil Thomason likes to invoke his “Rabbit Rule”: you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat, unless it was already in there. The premise (3) doesn’t even mention limits or free speech, so it cannot be valid to conclude anything about them, as (4) does. What we need is some innocuous hidden premise to get us there, such as, (A) only laws can constitute legal limits on free speech. Since (A) is innocuous, this hasn’t revealed anything revelatory; but it is all part of the AA process.
(2) (4) (5) → (6) is much the bigger problem. First, let’s just look at (4) (5) → (6) in isolation. We have a Rabbit problem here as well: the conclusion says the new rules don’t limit free speech, whereas the premises are about legal limits only. This is not my artifact: the equivocation lies in the original, as you can see for yourself. We shall have to fix it, by some kind of bridge, that will allow a valid inference. A plausible candidate would be: (B) that which does not constitute a legal limit on free speech does not constitute a limit on free speech. From this it validly follows that there is no limit on free speech, given the premise that the new APS rules do not constitute a legal restriction on speech. There is, however, an immediate problem with (B), which is that it is obviously false. When you appear to be compelled to introduce an obvious falsehood as a missing premise, that tends to be a bad sign. There is no help to be found in Wilson’s post, since he there recognizes no distinction between legal and other limits on speech, sliding over any problem. This is where (2) comes in, at least in my thinking. It (and related text, that I have not copied) appear to be suggesting that employment codes can be legally relevant, in particular by violating the law. The laws that might be both relevant and violated here are not gone into, but the qualification that it is only harsh and extreme criticism that is being suppressed suggests some such qualification. Therefore, I shall adopt (B’) as the missing premise: (B) so long as it only limits harsh or extreme critical speech. The subargment in question then becomes (with some modest rephrasing):
(2) The new rules limit employees’ political speech that is harsh or extreme in its criticism. (3) Employment codes cannot constitute a legal limit on free speech, if they only limit harsh or extreme criticism. (5) Free speech is about the legal limits of speech. (B’) That which is not a legal limit on free speech also does not limit free speech, so long as it at most limits harsh or extreme critical speech. (6) Therefore, the new rules do not limit free speech.
Our graph at this point is:
I accept this as valid, or near enough, but that’s hardly the end of the story.
Step 5: Counterargue
Tim Wilson’s suggestion that the right to free speech only concerns limits in law is one key issue. This certainly does reflect, for example, the first amendment to the US Constitution, which restricts what laws the US Congress may make. It also reflects the underlying motivation for many declarations about human rights in general and free speech in particular; the underlying motivation is to not tolerate governments which attack such freedoms. What it does not reflect, however, is the ability of governments to attack freedoms indirectly and implicitly. A government may, for example, attack free speech by financing those who openly support its policies and deny financing to those who openly criticize its policies. While this may not violate explicitly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, taken to an extreme it can be just as effective and pernicious as government actions which do openly violate that Declaration. More directly, “limiting free speech” is ordinary English, not legalese: Tim Wilson has neither the right nor the ability to arrogate its meaning for his own purposes. Telling people they cannot say something is limiting free speech, whatever pathetic spin Wilson cares to put on it. The only legitimate issue is whether the limitation is warranted or not, and on that count also Wilson is very much on the wrong side.
Wilson has gone to some pains to present his view as quite moderate. The only limitation of speech is that by an employment contract, and that speech must be extreme or harsh before any cause to dismiss can be found. So reads Wilson’s blog. And no ordinary person would expect to use extreme or harsh criticism of their employers in public and get away with it. Hence, the objectors must just be more of the chattering classes, of the latte-sipping variety. But there are a few points Wilson neglected, best considered with a latte in hand.
First of all, there is pre-existing policy that current APS employees might have a reasonable expectation of being enforced. The APS employment policy states:
It is quite acceptable for APS employees to participate in political activities as part of normal community affairs. APS employees may become members of or hold office in any political party.
Clearly, it follows from this that criticism of the existing government by opposition members who are a part of the public service is legitimate and protected, whether distributed via social media or otherwise. Of course, that does not mean that “harsh” or “extreme” criticism must be protected. Or, then again, perhaps it does. Presumably, since public servants are encouraged to run for public office, they are not meant to be severely handicapped relative to the incumbents they run against. But under the new Abbott rules that is the case: Abbott and other incumbents can be as obnoxious, harsh or extreme as they like in attacking their opponents, but if their opponents are also public servants, they cannot return in kind. If I were a public servant campaigning against the likes of Abbott, I would first resign. But that is irrelevant: the fact remains that Abbott’s rules clearly violate the intent of the existing code of conduct by restricting otherwise free political speech. Unfortunately, matters are even worse than what I have just written.
The exact wording of the new rules is, in fact, relevant. Specifically, they restrict opinions posted in social media, whether acting professionally or not, which are “so harsh or extreme in their criticism of the Government, Government policies, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that they could raise questions about the employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially” (my emphasis). This covers, for example, scientist public servants who may want to raise questions about George Brandis’ preposterous declamations on the climate change debate. Oh my! Were I a public servant, perhaps I would be fired tomorrow for that last sentence! It is certainly true than I hold my current political masters in contempt! Nevertheless, the standard being set here for public servants being called to account is simply absurdly low. Under what circumstances can the pack of Brandis, Abbott, Morrison, Hockey, Turnbull and the rest possibly raise questions about the professionalism of those who oppose them? I will leave it to your imagination. But if you are a public servant, you will have no difficulty answering the question and keeping your mouth firmly shut. Which is just what your masters want.
Steps 6 and 7: Consider Alternatives and Evaluate
I will illustrate these steps in the negative, by omission. As pure pedagogy it is not necessary, since it repeats the first five steps on new arguments; as a positive example, it may be necessary. I plead my case as a matter of time: I’ve taken a fair bit to do this much and need to get to other things. Perhaps, in future I shall return to this and complete it, however. Also, perhaps reader comments will help fill the gap.
I will, however, quickly comment on Wilson’s second argument. Codes of conduct may either be civilizing or barbarous. This new code might count as civilizing were the enormous leeway in its interpretation taken away. Wilson’s implicit suggestion that they are limited to work matters is at best misleading, however, since both political campaigns and scientific publications are explicitly mentioned as being circumscribed by the new rules. That the rules do not take away an employee’s right to quit work and face unemployment hardly means that employees’ rights to free speech are thereby unimpaired. A kidnap victim’s “right” to refuse an order and thereby get shot in the head doesn’t make such an event the victim’s fault, nor does its availability restore the victim’s freedom. Abbott’s rules demonstrate, as if further demonstration were needed, that all of his impulses are against transparency and freedom of speech. Barbarity is the New World Order.