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27 April 1999

Our current howler (part I): Creative science

Synopsis: College kids, don’t try this at home! Ben Wattenberg reads Earth in the Balance.

Gore in the political balance
Ben Wattenberg, The Washington Times, 4/15/99


Ben Wattenberg came up with a whole new approach in his recent critique of Gore’s Earth in the Balance. If a book is simply too long or too hard, write a review of a different book altogether! We often ask if college freshmen could get away with work like we find in the press. Trust us--the college student hasn’t been born who would try an approach quite like this.

We can foresee the caliber of Wattenberg’s critique in this, his first “substantive” point:

WATTENBERG: [Earth in the Balance] claims that global warming “threatens an environmental holocaust...today the evidence of an environmental Kristallnacht is as clear as the sound of glass shattering in Berlin.” Mr. Gore foresees “a kind of global civil war” between the environmental “resistance fighters” and the “silent partners of destruction.” Mr. Gore says opponents are “enablers” of such totalitarianism. (Unabomber anyone?)

Evoking the name of the Unabomber takes the place here of reasoned argument. In Earth in the Balance, Gore argues that global warming (and other problems) threaten environmental disaster. It would be helpful to find out if he is right, but Wattenberg has a better idea. He recites a puzzling, jumbled precis of Gore’s detailed view, then names the name of a famous psychopath. Presumably, lovers of conservative shorthand get the message, and see Gore as decisively squelched. (See postscript.)

But reporters who grapple with Earth in the Balance should prepare for a steady dose of this kind of work, in which polemicists substitute silly spin for an effort at reasoned argument. Obviously, the science required to evaluate this book goes well beyond the common attainment. In that circumstance, the temptation is great to replace normal argument with gong-show accounts of what Gore has said--and with the voices of various academic authorities, whose work we can’t evaluate either. But read, for example, what Wattenberg does when he cites his sole scientific expert. According to Wattenberg, biographer Bob Zelnick has a scientific witness who shoots Gore right out of the water:

WATTENBERG: But, Mr. Zelnick asks, what about James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies? He was a key witness in Mr. Gore’s 1988 Senate subcommittee hearings, testifying that he was “99 percent certain” that global temperatures had increased. But in a 1998 National Academy of Sciences paper, Mr. Hansen pulled back, writing: “The growth rate of greenhouse gas peaked in the late 1970s--and has declined since then.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know the science any better than Wattenberg does. But we can see that the statement from 1998 doesn’t contradict Hansen’s earlier statement--and doesn’t speak to the major question of whether a problem with warming lies ahead. If the growth rate of greenhouse gas has declined, then greenhouse gases continue to grow; and it is completely unclear from any of this what Hansen now thinks about warming. But this is the kind of butchered argument that has littered pop discourse about Earth in the Balance--argument that can’t possibly help us decide if Gore’s science is actually right.

But Wattenberg ends up with a whole new approach to arguing Earth in the Balance. Roughly halfway through his piece, he begins discussing a different book--a book that, Wattenberg cheerfully notes, Gore neither wrote nor reviewed! It is the book Beyond Malthus, by Lester Brown (and others), which Wattenberg tells us is a work of “junk science.” He spends the rest of his article complaining about it, then offers this inventive summation:

WATTENBERG: Now, Mr. Gore neither wrote nor praised “Beyond Malthus,” but, arguably, the book suggests some of the intellectual sources for his rigidity and sanctimoniousness on green issues. It behooves Mr. Gore to rethink and reformulate some of his stated views and re-evaluate the environment where he gets environmental guidance.

Talk about guilt by association! Gore wrote a book, and this is a book also! And since Wattenberg finds that this book is wrong, he decides that Gore’s book is wrong too! Of course! There isn’t a college student alive who would dare to pass in an argument like that--but it will be par for the course in the Earth debate, if the press corps is willing to tolerate it.

Alas! Here at THE HOWLER, we’re not equipped to evaluate the science of warming either. But we do know there’s going to be a whole lot of hoo-hah in the Earth in the Balance debate. If the debate about Earth is to be helpful at all, we’ll all have to try to reduce the tomfoolery. Over the course of the next few days, we’ll put you on some minor notice.

Freshman summer school, anyone? We’ll say this much--don’t copy off Ben.


Tomorrow: Dear readers, prepare to avert your gaze. Bob Zelnick’s complaints about Earth in the Balance often fly in the face of Earth’s text.

Spindrift: It’s not clear why Wattenberg says Gore regards ecological disaster as “totalitarianism.” In Earth in the Balance, Gore argues that defeating the coming ecological disaster should be the “central organizing principle for civilization,” just as the western nations made a mass effort, in World War II and the Cold War, to defeat totalitarianism. Gore also says at one point that “the emerging effort to save the environment is a continuation of these struggles [against totalitarianism], a crucial new phase of the long struggle for true freedom and human dignity.” He goes on to provide greater context. He never says that ecological disaster is totalitarianism, whatever such a statement could mean. But it made a good way to work in the ’bomber. Psychopath name-dropping, anyone?