Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Longstanding Optimism of Al Gore

A recent piece about Al Gore in the New York Times displayed an unwitting bias that turns reality on its head. The bias stems from a faulty notion of what constitutes optimism, and a confusion of perpetrator and victim when discussing the agents of polarization in political discourse.

In "The New Optimism of Al Gore" (Science Times 3/17), John Schwartz suggests that Al Gore may be becoming an optimist. In fact, he has always been one, in that he long ago correctly diagnosed a dangerous threat to the nation and the world, and offered a way to combat it. Pessimism is instead exemplified by Gore's critics, who say at every turn that we are helpless: that scientists cannot know what lies ahead, that we have no influence over climate and therefore no control, that even if America took action it couldn't possibly influence other countries to do the same, and that any effort to slow global warming will fail.

Similarly, a quote by Anthony Leiserowitz in the piece, characterizing Gore as "one of the country's most polarizing political leaders", falsely implies that Gore has done the polarizing. Polarization occurs when a large and noisy political faction chooses to reject well-established knowledge and base its views instead on falsehoods and wishful thinking. Given that science is a pillar of our civilization, the divide in political discourse on climate is not an inherent one, but is artificially constructed by unilateral secession from the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the issue.

The article, though thoughtful in many ways, still reflects a common bias in mainstream thinking that protects the political right from taking responsibility for the pessimism and polarization it generates.