Climate change’s OJ Simpson moment

Bill McKibben has just written an excellent article: Climate Change’s OJ Simpson Moment | Mother Jones. Although one can read it as yet another argument pro or con on climate change, it’s even more a sophisticated analysis of how the discourse has developed over the last 20 years, in the process giving a surprisingly sympathetic account of climate change deniers.

He starts by discussing the positive reaction to his first book, The End of Nature, which was one of the first books for a general audience on climate change:

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data…Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the US, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet.

But McKibben doesn’t just rail agains the deniers of global warming, or pull out reams of reports, data, and arguments. Instead, he  talks about how we all respond to disturbing news and to mountains of evidence we don’t have the capacity to sort through. I felt as if he were speaking to all of us across a wide range of complex topics in the modern era–health, economics, education.

He goes on then to show how evidence alone is not the issue; in fact, its effect can be contrary to what you might think at first:

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all.

The “OJ Simpson moment” relates to the problem that the defense faced in the OJ Simpson murder trial, in which “it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning.” How could they cast doubt, when there appeared to be no remotely reasonable doubt? McKibben shows how, ironically, one resource they had was the immense body of evidence against their client.

He also shows how ordinary language is shaped and changed. One reason the deniers of global warming are winning the debate is that they’re able to connect with our fear of change, of having to do something. As McKibben says:

The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster.

Boys and tables: Asking may not be enough

In my last post, I talked about the parable of the blind men and the elephant, concluding that if we want to know how others see the world, “we need to ask.”

But often, simple asking is not enough. John Dewey includes the following story (from Ogden and Richards, quoting J. H. Weeks) in his Essays in Experimental Logic. He obviously liked the story as I do, because he repeats it in his Logic: The theory of inquiry:

I remember on one occasion wanting the word for Table. There were five or six boys standing around, and tapping the table with my forefinger, I asked, ‘What is this?’ One boy said it was a dodela, another that it was an etanda, another stated that it was bokali, a fourth that it was elamba, and the fifth said it was meza.

[It turned out afterwards that] one boy thought we wanted the word for tapping; another understood that we were seeking the word for the material of which the table was made; another had the idea that we required the word for hardness; another thought we wished for a name for that which covered the table; and the last, not being able, perhaps, to think of anything else, gave us the word, meza, table—the very word we were seeking.


Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1949). The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism, 10th ed. With supplementary essays by Bronislaw Malinowski and F. G. Crookshank (orig. pub. 1923). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich

kathy_sariRecently, I listened to an interesting Afternoon Magazine (WILL AM 580) radio interview with Katherine Russell Rich, related to her book, Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language.

It’s her own story of learning language. When Rich lost her job at a New York magazine, she didn’t just file for unemployment compensation, she decided to immerse herself in Hindi and in India, as she says on her website;

I’d recently lost a job, I was watching the business I’d been in and loved, magazines, begin to crumble. My world had been turned upside down. Compounding that was the fact that in the decade before, I’d gotten smacked around twice by breast cancer. I barely recognized my own life anymore. Or the way that I put it in the book was, “I no longer had the language to describe my own life, so I decided to borrow someone else’s.”

There are many examples revealing about Hindi, English, language in general, culture, and Rich herself, e.g.,

…the word for yesterday and tomorrow is the same: kal, from Kali, the goddess of death and destruction. There’s a philosophy embedded in there—it’s only when you’re in today, aaj, that you’re here; if you’re in yesterday or tomorrow, you’re in blackness.