Jan 5, 2010

If We Don't Agree, You're Crazy

It would be tough to find a better example of what's wrong with public discourse than this blog post over at Treehugger.com. It's written by a gent named Matthew McDermott who (rather than being under-educated or youthfully foolish) has a Masters degree and looks well on his way to becoming middle-aged.

But educational opportunities and real-world experience don't promote tolerance in everyone. Nor, apparently, do they ensure that people cherish free and open debate - the lifeblood of any democracy.

McDermott's post is about John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, an international grocery store chain. In August 2009, Mackey authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he acknowledged that Americans "clearly need health-care reform" but went on to propose alternative mechanisms to the ones envisioned by President Obama.

Blogger McDermott informs us that he "stayed out of the debate" when this occurred. It's not clear how health care reform would be relevant to his alternative energy beat, but never mind.

The reason for his post is that The New Yorker has just profiled Mackey and among the dozen books the man is currently reading is one written by Ian Plimer - a geology professor who has twice received Australia's highest scientific honor.

Professor Plimer says that planet Earth is a complex, dynamic system that "always changes and evolves" (p. 9). He says climate has always changed "and always will" (p. 10). Finally, he argues that it's foolish to believe that a single variable - carbon dioxide - determines temperature (p. 11).

McDermott (who neglects to mention that Mackey was also reading a biography of the great African-American orator Booker T. Washington and so can't be all bad - wink), quotes a section from The New Yorker in which Mackey appears to agree with Prof. Plimer that "no scientific consensus exists" regarding climate change. Moreover, the CEO suggests there's a certain "hysteria about global warming."

So what is the response of this highly educated blogger? He feels a need, he says, to put things bluntly: "Mackey is crazy."

That's right. There is only one permissible opinion regarding health care or climate change. And either you share this opinion with McDermott or you are mentally ill.

These remarks are not made in jest. Moreover, they're uttered in a context in which it's clear Mackey's views are considered non-mainstream. The New Yorker describes Mackey as either "bold or reckless," and observes that "many of his customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree" with his views.

Let's step back for a moment and remind ourselves that the concept of free speech is all about protecting unpopular viewpoints. We don't need a Bill of Rights to safeguard our ability to say things most people agree with.

Because Mackey is perceived to be swimming against the tide of public opinion, this is precisely the sort of scenario in which free speech is most in need of a champion. So how does our fearless blogger respond? Does he vault onto his white horse, pull down his faceplate with a flourish, and brandish his lance in its defense?

Nope. He declares Mackey crazy. A lunatic whose views aren't worth considering.

Well, the world sure is gonna be a better place when folks like Matthew McDermott start running things. Do you suppose it'll have anything in common with the former Soviet Union - where people who criticized government policy found themselves confined to mental institutions?

I'm not aggressively left-wing or right-wing. But lots of people died for the freedoms we currently enjoy. Spitting on those freedoms just because we want to win an argument seems a poor way to demonstrate our gratitude.


Treehugger.com is owned by Discovery Communications, which describes itself as "the world's number one nonfiction media company." Mackey isn't being labeled mentally ill by some marginal outfit.

The paragraph below appears at the bottom of page 11 in Plimer's book. I think it illustrates why we should give a fair hearing to this man who - let me repeat myself - has twice been awarded Australia's highest science prize. Alas, in the last sentence he, too, suggests that people who think differently are mentally suspect.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept that smart, sincere people will embrace different, good-faith points of view? Why are we so eager to declare other perspectives illegitimate rather than simply viewing them as central to healthy debate?
The history of temperature change over time is related to the shape of the continents, the shape of the sea floor, the pulling apart of the [Earth's] crust, the stitching back together of the crust, the opening and closing of sea ways, changes in the Earth's orbit, changes in solar energy, supernoval eruptions, comet dust, impacts by comets and asteroids, volcanic activity, bacteria, soil formation, sedimentation, ocean currents and the chemistry of air. If we humans, in a fit of ego, think we can change these normal planetary processes, then we need stronger medication.