The Truth Is Out There

Mr Trump is going to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change.  He thinks climate change is a hoax.  It might even have been cooked up by the Chinese to damage the US economy.  He wants to fire up the US coal industry again as part of a strategy to get manufacturing industry in the mid-west rust belt to recover.

There is a stark contrast between Mr Trump’s point of view and that of Al Gore, who lost the presidential election by a hanging chad to George W Bush in 2000.  Mr Gore always had an interest in environmental issues and he went on to devote himself to persuading his country and the world that global warming was real and that we needed to do something about it.  He toured the US to give a series of lectures which are captured in the film An Inconvenient Truth.  Watching Al Gore present An Inconvenient Truth and watching President Trump announce his decision re Paris from the White House Rose Garden, it is clear that both men are consummate performers, each with their own inimitable style.  Mr Gore is rather academic, able to talk to what are known in academic circles as “busy slides”, addressing the meaning of graphs and statistics.  Mr Trump is more interested in the broad sweep of things rather than the nice details; he can hold his audience by a magnetism that is not to be underestimated.

But the question must arise, who is right?  Does global warming exist, and is the activity of mankind responsible for it?  In other words, what is the truth?

To outward appearances it would certainly seem as if Mr Gore has approached these questions with more scientific detachment than Mr Trump.  He has certainly outlined to us, in some detail, the salient scientific facts as he sees them.  By contrast, so far as I’m aware, Mr Trump has asserted that global warming is a hoax, without cogent scientific argument and back-up.  It is certainly a fact that the prevailing wisdom of the scientific community supports Mr Gore’s thesis.  If Mr Trump is privy to scientific arguments counter to the prevailing wisdom, I am not aware that he has laid them out and defended them.

I can’t help wondering what the world would have looked like if Mr Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000.  Some people think he actually did win.  These hanging chads again.  But it would seem that the US electorate vote for the man they would like to share a beer with in a bar.  Mr Kerry ran against Dubya in 2004.  Mr Kerry was a little like Mr Gore in being rather academic.  Good heavens, he speaks French!  Dubya got back in.  Perhaps we witnessed a similar phenomenon with Trump and Clinton: Hilary the Washington patrician and insider, Trump the self-professed man of the people.

The biggest event to occur in the west during this period of history has been 9/11.  Dubya looked utterly perplexed but then he was handed a gift on a plate.  A highly articulate lawyer crossed the Pond and without any need for encouragement became the voice, like Cyrano de Bergerac, for a man who could hardly string two words together.  You can see clips of Dubya behind his podium looking across at Mr Blair behind his podium with a pursed-lipped expression somewhere between bewilderment and gratitude.  It’s said Mr Blair was Dubya’s poodle but if anything it was the other way around.  Blair was miles ahead of the game.  “The kaleidoscope has been shaken…”   Then in 2003 Mr Blair persuaded the British Parliament that Saddam Hussein was such an imminent threat to the UK with his weapons of mass destruction that it was necessary to invade Iraq and remove him.  He won the Parliamentary debate by 412 to 149 votes.  Very few people in positions of influence opposed him.  Charles Kennedy did.  So did Robin Cook, whose resignation speech on March 17th 2003 was extremely eloquent.  Both men died prematurely.  I also recall Ken Clarke stating in the House, somewhat presciently, that if we embarked on the Iraq war, we would see terrorism in the streets of London.

It seems to me that three of the people I have mentioned, Mr Blair, Mr Bush, and now Mr Trump, shared a common feature.  They had a scant regard for the truth.  They were prepared to interpret the world according to their own lights and to proceed on a course of action without much attention to external reality.  Hans Blix was telling Blair and Bush that there was no evidence of the existence in Iraq of WMD.  Virtually the entire scientific community is telling President Trump that global warming is real, and is caused by us.

We live in a “post-truth” age.  If something confronts us that is not to our taste, we call it “fake news”.  Scientists are belittled.  Not so long ago Michael Gove advised us not to pay too much attention to experts.  The idea that there might be a “truth” out there that is independent of our own imagination and will is seriously doubted.  The world is largely as we choose to see it.  This is the origin of political “spin”.  You disguise the truth by applying a heavy veneer of humbug.  You are like a defence attorney presenting a case you don’t personally believe to be true.  You could as easily argue the other side’s case by, as Mr Blair would say, “deploying other arguments”.  The Princeton University philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt dissects this indifference to external truth in his two wonderful treatises On Bullshit and On Truth.  His great insight on bullshit is that the perpetrator of it doesn’t actually care whether what he is saying is true or not; and on truth, that once you cease to believe in the reality of a truth “out there”, you cease to have any clear notion of where you as an individual begin and end.  In other words, you go a bit crazy.

After the Manchester suicide bombing some people said Jeremy Corbyn had “blamed Britain” for the atrocity simply because he had asserted that the Iraq war had fuelled Islamist extremism.

Duh.

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