Denialism and moral equivalence

By Legal Eagle

Clive Hamilton wrote a piece for Crikey earlier this week in which he likened those who deny climate change to those who deny the Holocaust. He said:

We think of Holocaust deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated by anti-Semitism or a desire for political advancement through stirring up racial hatred.

We think of climate deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated, not by truth-seeking, but by political goals, a desire for funds from fossil-fuel companies or personal aggrandisement.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying that I have no time for Hamilton, and this piece just confirms my low opinion.

Sinclair Davidson wrote in Crikey (ungated version here):

The challenge for Clive Hamilton is to explain how an argument over appropriate policy for the future is equivalent to the Holocaust, where millions of people were deliberately put to death. Hamilton can make as many fancy-pants arguments he likes about consequentialism and what-not. To equate climate change scepticism…with the Holocaust is the mark of a moral dwarf.

I agree with Davidson wholeheartedly. (Isn’t “moral dwarf” a lovely insult? I must save it up for the future…)

The distinction between the Holocaust or Shoah and climate change is very simple. The former has happened, and has resulted in the deaths of millions of people. The second is still under debate, and has not resulted in the deaths of millions of people yet. The notion of climate change is that global temperatures are rising because of the greater release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by human beings, and that certain things will result from this. But the important thing is that the events which have been predicted by the IPCC have not yet happened. They represent a scientific hypothesis.

Yet again I feel irritated about the lack of understanding as to scientific hypotheses, and want to jump up and down about Karl Popper and falsifiability. You can’t ever say in science that something is definitely going to happen. All you can say is that, on the available evidence before you, it seems likely that a certain result will occur. But if further evidence comes to light, then this may disprove the hypothesis. It may be very unlikely that the hypothesis be disproved, but it can still happen, particularly when the predicted occurrences are very far-ranging and subject to a large number of variables. This is why it is important to keep your mind open to all possibilities in science, even unlikely ones. I don’t actually know whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not – but I certainly want us to keep testing the hypothesis and think very carefully about what the responses should be.

By contrast, the Shoah is an entirely different thing. It is something that happened in the past, not something that is predicted in the future. I am generally pro-freedom of speech, but the one thing that really challenges my principles in that regard is anti-Semitism. My fingers itch to hit the “ban free speech” button on this topic.

Holocaust denialism has taken on a new life since the Israel-Palestine dispute. The idea is that the Holocaust is a “made up” event designed to engender sympathy, and the implication is that the UN granted Israel to the Jews on false premises. Holocaust denial is simply vile. It is a fact that millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, trade unionists, communists and others were killed in concentration camps. To say that they were not is appalling. Furthermore, as Davidson points out, the killing in the Shoah was deliberate, and the victims often suffered cruelly before death.

The point is that there is masses of empirical evidence to prove that the Holocaust occurred. Now, I know that empirical evidence is not fashionable these days, but as a lawyer, I tend to think that it’s important to be able to back up one’s facts with evidence. By contrast, one cannot look back into the past in the same way at climate change. It is something which may occur in the future. It is simply a prediction. It may be a convincing prediction or a well-backed-up prediction, but we cannot yet say what the consequences will be on a practical level. Any predictions are by their very nature speculative.

There cannot be a moral equivalence between denying something terrible which has already happened and something terrible that may happen in the future. In fact, it’s important to question scientific hypotheses, and to question what the economic, social and moral responses should be to a predicted future event.

Further, there cannot be a moral equivalence when the historical occurrence involved deliberately killing, imprisoning and torturing millions of people simply because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or politics. It shows that Hamilton really doesn’t understand the deliberate nature of what occurred in the Holocaust. It’s a cheap shot which smacks of “Godwin’s Law“.

Update:

In a heated discussion on Facebook, I have realised what my fundamental problem with Hamilton’s piece is. Painting someone as akin to an apologist for fascist killers is not the way to persuade that person of the error of their ways. Nor will you get very far if you display a patronising and arrogant attitude towards those who think differently to you. All that will do is perhaps stop the person from expressing their opinion in public. Oh yes, I forget, that’s what Hamilton wants to do…

Hamilton has a history of wanting to suppress freedom of speech, which is one of the reasons why he’s unpopular in the blogosphere. At base, that is what the point of this post is. In a piece such as this, his aim is to yet again prevent people from expressing views which are different from his.

One Comment

  1. Dave
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    See, I find two things strange:

    – Its actually now just happening in front of people’s faces. Revolting heatwaves in Victoria, record temperature smashing all previous records by a massive margin, incredible heatwaves in South Australia, melting ice caps, and on and on and on.

    – The delusion by the ‘skeptics’ that they are some sort of truth-telling ‘put upon’ minority, when in fact the money and lobbying put into climate change denial is many many times that of the environmental groups. If this was a debate about anything else which didn’t involve a vast fossil fuel sector, it would have been sorted quickly and we would have all moved on. Its sad to see the right wing nutters get used by the fossil fuel industry to destroy the planet.

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