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Cohen-Godwin’s Law: A Rejoinder

Prince Arthur Herald, 10 October 2013


Will Cohen writes: “By claiming that I am comparing climate change deniers to Nazis he [yours truly] is trying to instantly discredit my argument on the basis of my use of one word.” This is exactly right. The whole purpose of Godwin’s Law is to declare an argument lost once one of the participants associates his opponent with Hitler or adulation of Hitler — ergo the reductio ad hitlerum — particularly when the subject of discussion has nothing to conceivably do with Nazi Germany. Such is the case in our present row over his use of the word “denier” in relation to climate change, a debate where his faith is supposedly a mark of enlightenment, and my agnosticism — not “denial”, as I carefully explained in my previous column — a supposed equivalent to amoral apathy.

He’s very concerned that his global-warming doomsdayism might be confused or associated with that of the political Left. I don’t care about the identity of his bedfellows; my objection is that he is rehearsing the Warmers’ principal ideological trope, which is a product of their attempt to name-call their way out of an argument. This is all based on the belief that people who don’t agree with them are below responding to, except in tones of self-righteousness and moral superiority, i.e. in the same way that decent people would justly respond if they encountered a proselytizing refuter of the Holocaust. Hence the rhetorical appeal of the term “denier”. Cohen writes that he could have just as easily used “sceptic”, but doesn’t say why he chose “denier” instead (a choice he made seven times in a single column).

Let me fill in the blank. He chose “denier” for the same reason the crusading lefties do: because it invokes in the reader a profound moral revulsion, due solely to one’s knowledge, however peripheral or elementary, of what happened in Poland in the ’40s. Denial of those events remains the term “denier”s chief referent in the minds of the public, regardless of the Oxford Dictionary’s claim that it is actually quite versatile. The Warmers’ constant barraging of the word in this context (a cause to which Cohen has now contributed) is an attempt to habituate people into a similar response to climate-change scepticism — which, even if misguided, is morally incomparable in its intention and consequences. This strategy is not an effort to convince people or to systematically refute the claims of those who disagree; it is a pure exercise in demagoguery.

Cohen has seemingly added a clause of his own to Godwin’s Law: namely, someone who points out the use of the fallacy is himself guilty of the fallacy! He thereby convicts me of the same offence. But, needless to say, I wasn’t associating him, or his beliefs, or those who share his beliefs with Hitler. I was simply noting that, in betrayal to what was otherwise a reasonable article, Cohen indulged in the same corrosive and mindless tactic that is used by the very people he insists he is unlike. And this tactic is especially opprobrious because it 1) aims to stifle debate and slander the holders of unpopular opinion, as in all instances of the reductio, and 2) profanes the sacred shame associated with the Holocaust and denial thereof by exploiting it for lesser political purposes.

There aren’t that many requirements made of journalists, or commentators, or columnists, or whatever you want to call people like Mr Cohen and me. Aside from adhering to standards of proper prose style, which he seems to do well enough, we are foremost enjoined to engage with political opponents in good faith — i.e. to observe that people disagree with us for genuine reasons and to treat them as morally-equal human beings — and to craft arguments with intellectual honesty. In other words, no cheap shots. Choosing language which implies a moral equivalence between political disagreement and Holocaust denial is the cheapest of shots, which is why I think that Cohen has committed an act of dishonesty. It’s also not a tactic that a real Scrutonian would adopt.

Being the merciful character that I am, I essentially gave Cohen a way out when I prefaced my initial criticism with, “One can’t know for sure whether Cohen is employing this term through conscious deliberation, or whether he’s just parroting what he hears from the Warmers.” I meant that: maybe he’d just heard the word “denier” sloshing about in the echo chamber and repeated the slur without thinking about it. (It would be impossible for someone to consciously employ it without malicious intent; the strategy is too calculated, appearing as it does in nearly all pro-Warmer articles, to be otherwise.) But he has now chosen to own the term for himself, claiming to have used it “deliberately”. Yet his explanation — including the clarification, “Holocaust deniers deny the overwhelming historical data that supports the claims made about the holocaust by most historians, just as climate change deniers deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change” — amounts to saying: I wasn’t calling climate-change sceptics equal to Holocaust deniers, but if I wanted to I’d be right, since both equally fail to accept the truth. This is pretty unconvincing.

Two final points: Cohen says that I attacked him for “daring to claim that [he] know[s] anything about science.” I did no such thing. What I said was that, in my experience, people who beat the drums of climate doomsdayism tend to operate fideistically and without any real competence of their own, meaning that even if climate sceptics did have arguments or evidence contradicting their belief, they would be immune to them. Believing something on faith does not necessarily indicate that the object of faith is false, but it does mean that sceptics are primarily “guilty” of failing to share the faith, not of failing to share the truth. Perhaps Cohen actually is a chest full of cultivated scientific knowledge, but if he isn’t, he has no right to grandstand on the mere pretense of hyperlinking to an IPCC report. In case he hasn’t noticed, those who reject his belief also make citations.

Secondly, he writes that I advocate “a kind of climate-change agnosticism”. I didn’t write that, either. What I did say was 1) that the debaters (and especially the Warmers) have effectively herded themselves into hermetically-sealed camps, without a desire to address the arguments of the other side apart from self-congratulatory abuse, and 2) that my scientific illiteracy (about equal to that of anyone not educated in science at the university level) makes me unable to properly discern cogent from uncogent scientific claims, at least at the level of sophistication present in academic journals. As a result, the only intellectually-honest belief I can come to personally is to say, “I don’t know”, which I think belies a far more modest attitude than the one exhibited by most lay people invested in this debate.

I’m not telling anyone else what to believe, but I do think this position is reasonable. Though if Mr Cohen wants to convince me through reason — and not by name-calling or by insinuating that I’m too lazy to read — I am, as they say, all ears.






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Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com