Of Goose, Gander, and Godwin

Internet old-timers will be aware of Godwin’s Law, a principle that used to be well known on usenet. Wikipedia:

Godwin’s law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies[1][2]) 
is an observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990[2] that has become an Internet adage. It states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”[2][3] In other words, Godwin observed that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis. …

there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.[8] This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin’s law.

(It’s to the latter, corrollary principle, that I refer here)

Though the original composition of the law was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it became something of a self-enforcing tradition. Wikipedia also refers to examples where Godwin’s law appeared to escape the confines of online discussions and into other spheres of life. “The governing Conservative Party in Canada during the spring of 2012 is widely considered to have lost a debate in the parliamentary house of commons when the debate degenerated to an argument of ‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’.”

Given my family history (my paternal grandfather and my oldest cousin on my mother’s side and his mother, all died in concentration camps. Most of my late parents’ firends had similar experiences. My aunt survived the camps and has a number tattooed on her arm.) I was one of the enforcers. This was territory where I would not permit any conversation to go.

Yet I had (and still have) no trouble laughing at this Monty Python piece:

And because I am closer to the Nazi holocaust than most, and closer to the climate debate than most, much as I hate to do it, considering the matter pretty much falls in my bailiwick.

All of this is brought to mind by the Heartland fiasco (billboards suggesting that the Unabomber or Fidel Castro are typical in some way of people concerned about climate change), along with a recent Revkin discovery which points to a newcomer to the blog wars who is a holocaust survivor explicitly making the comparison to climate change. Many readers will also remember NASA GISS director Jim Hansen’s notorious comparison of coal trains to death camp trains.

So are these transgressions comparable? Surely, the Heartland people think they are getting enormous grief for giving no better than they got. Joe Bast must be wondering why his flirting with the boundary of Godwin’s law was so much more consequential for him than Hansen’s clear-cut violation was for Hansen?

Are we being hypocritical for not denouncing Hansen for making similar comparisons?

In some ways I sympathize. By considering the sheer weight of mortality plausibly associted with climate change, I got myself in trouble with Fox News, courtesy of a little boost from Marc Morano in his final days in Senator Inhofe’s office and an initial push, lest we forget, by Roger Pielke Jr.

The person I was accusing of flirting with genocide in an abstract sort of way was Andy Revkin, who in real life is about the nicest, un-Naziest person you could meet. My point was and is that these conversations we are having are not mere games. I’m afraid I have to stand by my criticism and I have to stand by my words. (Andy has expressed some regret for the story he wrote, an epitome of false balance, but I haven’t yet seen his reflections on the incident in depth. I’d like to.)

The point stands because the consequences of the debate could indeed be enormous.

Now, we can argue whether a false positive would be worse than a false negative. This brings us back to Greg Craven’s convincing demonstration that these are not seriously comparable. Does that excuse Hansen? Because in the eyes of people who think we are the leading edge of a revival of Stalinism, rather than people who actually have some grasp of atmospheric chemistry, Craven’s argument doesn’t hold water.

Of course it’s hard to follow the argument from assuming such a wild delusion. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone you think is crazed. But it’s also hard to say that the delusional person isn’t acting correctly on the basis of their own honest perceptions. And now I’m in trouble, because it’s not a huge step from there to comparing Joe Bast to Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber, after all, honestly believed in his own reasoning. Let’s not go there.

The point about the end of Heartland is not that Joe Bast brought up the issue of mass murder, then.

Rather, what we see in the infamous Unabomber billboard is a couple of things. 1) Bast honestly believes, and wants others to believe, that concern about climate is not merely erroneous but cynical and driven by a quest for power. (After all, when we think of people with monomaniacal tendencies, Jim Hansen is really the epitome of the personality type that comes to mind, right?) 2) Bast honestly believes, and expects others to believe, that emotional manipulation on a highway billboard is an effective way to change beliefs 3) Bast expects that creating an association in people’s minds between science and criminal insanity is a constructive move.

What we have to do is to consider this from the point of view of people who are honestly on the fence. To them, to people who think there are realistic reasons to delay and minimize policy action, this amounts to hysterical baseless mudslinging.

Joe Bast did help us all, by publicly revealing his true colors in such a memorable way. He’s been saying things like this for years, apparently, but now the world knows it. However, the outcome of the event seems to be limited by the marginalization of Joe Bast and the disruption of the Heartland pseudo-conference.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good outcomes. But they are of marginal importance. There are a hundred, maybe a thousand Joe Basts out there ready to step up, on this topic and on others. If we are really to profit from Bast’s mistake, we have to look beyond him to the environment in which he operates, the mechanisms for removing money from rich old people with personality problems, and the extent to which this subverts our collective ability to make good decisions. Ultimately, before we finally repeal Godwin’s Law as a thing of the distant past, we need to shine the light on the whole pattern of greed and malice that is the air which people like Joe Bast breathe.

All of this argues against hot-button arguments like the death train analogy. The risk, of course, is that by being too calm and analytic, we end up understating the risks. By being too emotional and manipulative, though, we end up in the dynamic of two-party politics, where those not too associated with either party find both parties about equally distasteful, whether or not one party is advancing something much closer to a coherent and workable policy.

I didn’t know where I would end up when I started writing this. In the end, I think, Godwin stands. Comparisons to mass murder and genocide short-circuit rational processes. We should avoid them even if they are valid. What we shouldn’t avoid is a sober actuarial assessment of risk. That’s scary enough.


  1. I think that the rhetoric on anti global warming had reached a point where people seemed to feel that it was anything goes. It has become an arms race in being offensive and taking offense.

    The whole debate seemes to have been sucked into the American culture wars and the ferbile atmospehere that entails. It was in this atmosphere that Heartland felt it was in its interests to be as bombastic and offensive as possible. But for the other side of the mirror there is an advantage to be gained from being hugely over the top in the rhetoric. If this side is correct and we experiance even a 2-2.5C increase in global temperatures we could see sea levels rising for hundreds of years and even getting about a 7m rise. It is hard to over state the consaquencies of that when one thinks of the millions living in the deltas of Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh and along the Mekong. So by creating highly public rhetoric so extreme it provokes a backlash of 'too much', they create a counter part to the kind of language many reasonable people would use to describe the displacement of hundreds of millions of people and the loss of much of the worlds most productive farm lands.

    It helps them shape the debate away from language that legitimately describes slow unfolding catastrophies.

  2. I'm not sure what is worse: someone likening climate activists to murderers/terrorists/tyrants because they cynically think that's an analogy that will inflict harm, knowing that it's absurd; or someone making such an analogy because they believe it to be accurate.

    Recently in Canada, Stephen Harper (definitely in the cynical category of Godwin Law violators) claimed that the New Democratic Party (Canada's largest and left-leaning opposition party)didn't support the war against Hitler. Since the NDP was formed in 1961, this charge is technically correct. That didn't stop people having some fun with it on Twitter.


  3. This topic has been touched at Bart's, on his thread about Communicating Science. I won't recall the conversation. A fair amount of reading might be needed. Perhaps a good starting point is my first comment in the thread, to see how it degenerate:


    My second one is more relevant for MT's post. I basically argue that using labels is self-defeating:


    Since I'm interested in labeling, I follow up that reflection in Bart's Open Thread:


    I'll try to post one comment per day until I reach the bottom of the tank.

    No, not that kind of tank.

  4. "...the whole pattern of greed and malice that is the air which people like Joe Bast breathe."

    I'm not so sure. One thing we can surely take away from this is that Bast at least, and others like him - how many I wouldn't dare to guess, really are seriously deluded. He may be cynical in the way he goes about things, but he's probably entirely oblivious to just how ugly his promotion of greed and malice in himself and others looks to others not within his own very limited circle.

    In the end, his whole enterprise is very much in the family of the sales people who are themselves so gullible that they can't see why others won't believe what they tell them - because they convinced themselves of something ludicrous in the first place. I don't know how long it will take, but a time will come when Bast and his cronies are left stranded on the outer reaches of public opinion, abandoned by all those businesses he thinks he's representing. They are genuinely realistic, and often cynical, about attaching themselves to people who can advance their interests. The moment they seem not to be doing that, they'll be discarded like old shoes.

  5. Instead of thinking of folks like Bast as "communicators" of whatever they want to communicate, perhaps it's more useful to think of them as soldiers in a psyops war. I suspect that, to some degree, that's how they see themselves.

    Yes, psyops warriors. This is the level that they're working at -- not the "science communications via mass media" stuff where the landscape's assumed to be all flowers and kittens. I'm serious.

    Of course, as with any war, there are weaknesses to exploit. (I suspect that Bast may have revealed one of them -- perhaps, being such a good soldier, he's managed to indoctrinate himself into believing that his cause is good and just, and that he's fighting a force of genuine evil.)

    But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that it's all merely about "communication". Certainly there are people in the fracking lobby who think otherwise, and operate on a whole different level.

    -- frank

  6. Unfortunately, it may well turn out that coal trains do indeed eventually produce more suffering and death than the death trains. Terrorists killed 3000 on 9/11, but over 100000 die every year from medical error and unnecessary surgery. Sometimes the most mundane things are the most deadly. If we continue on the course we are following we risk the death of billions (with a B). When controls are removed on most animal populations, their population explodes until they overrun their resources and end up with roughly 90% of the population dying. That is the situation we are in now--except for most animals the overrun is local, for us it is global. Unfortunately, global warming is only one manifestation of this, although currently one of the most pressing. Failure to act will cause wide spread suffering and death.

  7. Full agreement. WW2 claimed about 50 to 70 million deaths - according to Wikipedia.

    There are a few studies about the number of global warming deaths per year - some source put the number 150,000 per year - but that is hard to measure. Other sources say we will soon have 250,000 per year.

    It will be a few more years before AGW causes more deaths than WW2 - Perhaps then Godwin's law will be replaced with a similar derisive law of dangerous denialism - Call it the Heartland Law of tragic blunder.

  8. "Bast expects that creating an association in people’s minds between science and criminal insanity is a constructive move."

    Twas, um, interesting to see scientists specifically discussed in a recent Italian anarchist communique, following them kneecapping the CEO of a nuclear firm:

    "Science in centuries past promised us a golden age, but it is pushing us towards self destruction and slavery. With our action we give back to you a small part of the suffering that you scientists are bringing to the world."

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