Environmental Politics and The False Muddle

Stuck in the middle with you

A favorite tactic that Regressives like to use is to play on our self image as reasonable, objective individuals who look at the big picture and take a rational position. By skillful distortion of information and framing of issues we are too often manipulated into having unreasonable, biased opinions that we would instantly reject if we truly understood the big picture.

Most of us are familiar with the tactic of “framing”, ie describing the issue in such a way that one side appears reasonable and open minded relative to their opponents. A simple example would be the choice to call one side of a particular debate “Pro-life”, implying that Progressives are ‘Anti-life’ or ‘Pro-death’. Of course to an extent we do this as well, with Progressives opting for “Pro-choice” as the frame for the issue.

Even this simple example illustrates a couple of important aspects of the tactic. While ‘Pro-life’ may indeed be the crux of the issue for those who oppose abortion, it is hardly accurate or fair to say that those who support a woman’s right to choose are ‘Pro-death.’ It is also true that the “Pro-life” group is not necessarily against ‘choice’ per se, but the distortion of the relative positions is not as extreme as with the ‘Pro-death’ label.

One point that many miss is that while the two stances are usually offered as the extremes of a spectrum, they actually are not. The opposite of ‘no abortion except where giving birth endangers …” would be ‘mandatory abortion except where it endangers … .’ Granted an extreme, crazy position, but it would be the actual polar opposite of the ‘no abortion’ stance. Considered in that light, what is the reasonable, objective middle ground? Regardless, what the labels really tell us is what the respective groups see as the crux of the issue more than what their opponents do or do not stand for.

Naturally the same sorts of tactics are used in environmental issues. A common appeal to the public is that environmentalists “need to be reasonable” and “share” some resource or natural area. Sharing is good, right? Sharing is positive. Keeping it all for oneself and not sharing is greedy. The frame being presented is that the environmentalists are extremists and the Regressives are moderates who are willing to compromise.

Of course this is nonsense. In suggesting that environmentalists “share” the focus of the discussion is some particular natural area, not all of the land or ocean. If we look at how much land area still exists as untouched or even degraded wilderness we see that in fact there is very little sharing going on. Anyone who was actually committed to “sharing” this Earth would advocate that huge areas be immediately restored to a natural state as far as they possibly can.

Another variant of this is tactic is using the “false middle” logical fallacy. That is to say an issue is presented as though the truth lies in between two apparently extreme positions, when in fact the truth is that one position is completely false. The fallacy of the “false middle” is easily illustrated:

Claim A: 2+2 = 4
Claim B: 2+2 = 2

Obviously A is the correct answer and B is totally false, but with more complex issues we can mistakenly be led to think that the truth lies somewhere around 3, the false middle. It is worth pointing out that the false middle is every bit as wrong as claim B; it is not half right or more right than B.

Regressives have had great success using this tactic in the climate change debate. The truth is that the evidence for human caused climate change is stronger than ever and the scientific argument against it is … well, as Peter Gleick discusses, it doesn’t exist. There is no valid counter argument. None at all. Nothing, nada, zilch. The Denier case is the equivalent of the 2+2 = 2 argument, completely false.

Yet as recent polls document how their appeal to the false middle has succeeded in getting more people to doubt the reality (or at least severity) of climate change. This success is translating into initiatives to undermine action to stop climate change, and in some cases even legislation to mandate teaching a more “balanced” view in school science courses. How is this possible? Easy, we all want to think of ourselves as reasonable, balanced, objective thinkers. These appeals are not to our reason, but to our ever so much more powerful egos.

Since the Denier’s claims about the facts are utter nonsense, how much more so their call for more balanced, objective media coverage? Real objective media coverage would expose their lies for what they are, report the lack of real credentials most of their “experts” have, tell us who finances them and why. That’s not what we get though, and given two apparent extreme points of view many of us opt for the false middle.

This tactic only works when we allow ourselves to be manipulated. The Regressives wave their hands like a magician to distract us from what the issues and questions really are. Too often the call to ‘be reasonable’ is an invitation to abandon reason entirely and form an opinion based on ego.

Rather than give in to the impulse to adopt a ‘reasonable’ stance, we need to think critically about each situation. We all need to re-examine our opinions about the issues to see if we have been manipulated into concluding that 2+2 = 3 because that is the “reasonable middle ground”, or as I prefer to call it, the false muddle.

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