On Climate Debate, Skepticism and Public Intellectuals

A long posting and following discussion on Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog on the topic of “Public intellectuals in the climate space” prompted me to recall an apposite thought, written long before the heated (and often overheated) arguments over global warming.

A postcard on my office bulletin board, which I’ve had for at least a dozen years, from journalist Steven Brill of Brill’s Content, a defunct but influential magazine, says a lot in a little space.

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“Skepticism is a weapon. It deflects spin, propaganda, P.R., B.S., press agents, publicity seekers, hearsay, unnamed sources, and anyone with a hidden agenda.

“Skepticism is that little voice that tells you you’ll never be a millionaire with little or no money down.

“Skepticism is that sneaking suspicion that all aspirin are alike.

“Skepticism is a quality shared by truth seekers, freethinkers and realists.

“Skepticism demands that proof and facts be unsanitized, uncensored and unembellished.

“Skepticism makes the world accountable.

“Skepticism is a virtue.”

Georgia Tech’s Curry also picked up a quote from the late Christopher Hitchens that hits the spot. Hitchens, along with George Orwell, are two writers and thinkers I have long admired. Indeed, I have a full shelf of one of my office bookshelves devoted to Orwell, including all of his books, all of his biographies, the four-volume selected set of his writings, and all of the books of Orwell criticisms and analyses, including Hitchens’s “Why Orwell Matters.”

Writing a short essay in the May 2008 issue of Prospect magazine, Hitchens addressed, “How to be a public intellectual.” He was generally scornful of the hubris and self-aggrandizement of the term, observing, “The very term ‘public intellectual’ sometimes affects me like the expression ‘organic food.’ After all, there can’t be any ‘inorganic’ nourishment, and it’s difficult to conceive of an intellectual whose specialisation was privacy, at least since Immanuel Kant.”

Then Hitchens argues, “However, we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of ‘opinion maker’ or ‘pundit.’ I personally hope the word never quite loses this association with the subversive. There ought to be a word for those men and women who do their own thinking; who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who are willing and able to nail a lie.”