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)
is an observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990 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.” 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. 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.