Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2005/01/07

All Fall Down and Worship . . . Mark Steyn?

Mark Steyn's return from from the Planet Hiatus has been duly noted, nay, celebrated by my friends on the right as a combination of Christmas and that coronation scene in the Return of the King. The right-wing blogosphere has been particularly breathless, practically falling over each other to link up to his latest ramblings.

So what is it with Mark Steyn, anyway? Granted he's a gifted writer who can turn a phrase. He is sometimes funny. He can outrage, as in this bit of gratuitous nastiness written soon after 11 September 2001:
The post-Cold War interlude is over, an era of follies – OJ, Monica – and fatuities, a few of which Tuesday’s horror stories cruelly underlined: employees in wheelchairs, whom Bob Dole’s Americans with Disabilities Act and the various lobby groups insist can do anything able-bodied people can, found themselves trapped on the 80th floor, unable to get downstairs, unable even to do as others did and hurl themselves from the windows rather than be burned alive. (Source)

Reading that in the National Post in the weeks after the terrorist attacks was like being felt up at fancy dinner party: you were almost as embarrassed for the miscreant as you were for yourself. But despite all of Mr Steyn's qualities, when you read him, you have the sensation of facts being elided, of straw men being presented for the sole purpose of ridicule, of illusion and smoke and mirrors.

Take for example one of Mr Steyn's latest offerings, entitled "Save the whales? What about the Japanese?" in which the humble pundit offers up his views on global warming, evolution, and the pending western demographic implosion. First para:

Professor Lloyd Peck of the British Antarctic Survey is worried about -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- global warming. For this year's Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution in London, he'll be warning that the merest smidgenette of an increase in temperature in the south polar seabed will lead to the loss of a zillion species.

Note the use of "Professor", not Doctor, as in fact Lloyd Peck is: Mr Steyn repeatedly uses this title, common enough in British and Canadian usage, to conjure up for his American readers images of the dotty British scientist talking though his hat, a la Monty Python. More on this presently. As for the "smidgenette" of warming, Mr Steyn implies that a) the warming hasn't happened, and b) in any case it's trivial. There is, to be sure, controversy over the rate of warning. It is worthwhile to note that some places in Antarctica the average temperature has already gone up as much as 3 degrees Celcius, a difference that would give Toronto a climate like that of, say, New York City. We'll excuse the "zillion species" bit as mere hypebole in the cause of humour.

Para Two:
And all this will happen if the temperature goes up two degrees, from butt-numbingly freezing to marginally less butt-numbingly freezing. "It is going to be really unpleasant," Professor Peck tells Britain's Guardian newspaper, globally warming to his theme. "We are going to lose things -- we just don't know how much."
As noted, temperatures are going up. More to the point, the clever phrase "butt-numbingly freezing to marginally less butt-numbingly freezing" obscures the fact some significant changes to Antarctica's ecosystem have occured because of this warming: grasses, for example, have become established on the continent in significant numbers for the first time in ten thousand years. As well, let's go back to the original Guardian article that Mr Steyn seems to use as a source. What Dr Peck said in entirety was thus:
Antarctic animals - in the sea especially - are very sensitive to climate change and they are the early warning system for the loss of species on the planet. We should be watching for those because climate change is probably going to get rid of them before it gets rid of other species.

We know things are changing; it is going to be really unpleasant; we are going to lose things - we just don't know how much.
Quoting the last paragraph alone makes Dr Peck look like a loon; add the context of the preceding paragraph, the picture is somewhat different.

Para Three:
. . . But what I find curious about this sort of thing is that Professor Peck is supposed to be a scientist and the newspaper reporting his views is famously rational.
That "Professor" thing again. Dr Peck is, in fact, a scientist. Works for the British Antarctic Survey. Doctorate from Cambridge University and all that. Nothing supposed about him at all. And he actually has the kind of rags-to-renown story so beloved of the right, and one would think, Mr Steyn. No matter. He is --- and others of his ilk --- just a doofus professor.

Para Four:
Evolution posits that species will come and go: Some die out, some survive and evolve. . . Maybe if the Antarctic food chain is incapable of evolving to cope with a two-degree increase in temperature across many decades it isn't meant to survive.
Here Mr Steyn shifts gears and starts talking about evolution. Eh, what? Evolution? Oh I see: Mr Steyn conceeds the point that maybe global warming is happening, but for the penguins and the krill, that's life. In the great Darwinian casino, you lose. Except that we're causing the extinction, and evolution posits change over hundreds and thousands of years, not decades.

Para Seven (I know I'm skipping, but I'm trying to keep this post within reason):
. . . But, on the other hand, somebody (most likely an American) might have invented a thing the size of the Palm Pilot you staple to the seabed that automatically lowers the temperature by two degrees and we'll have wall-to-wall algae. Who can say?
Given the American administration's current state of global warming denial, I'd say that's about as likely as George Bush endorsing gay marriage. Mr Steyn seems to be suggesting that with all the variables postulated in the science of global warming, who knows the outcome. This argument is like quibbling about the precise moment to apply the brakes when the bus is going over the cliff. Whether we feel the full effects of global warming in two decades or a two hundred years is almost besides the point: the end result ain't gonna be pretty.

Paras Eight, Nine and Ten: Here Mr Steyn jumps again and manages to conflate concerns about global warming to the supposed lack of interest in the demographic catastrophe affecting Western Europe and Japan:
Given the choice between the krill's hypothetically impending extinction and their own impending extinction already under way, Europeans would apparently rather fret about the denizens of the deep.
Ahem. The sleight of hand, the old bait and switch element in this line of reasoning is so obvious it doesn't bear analysis. But to correct Mr Steyn, declining and aging populations is actually the subject of a long-running, fretful debate in Western Europe and elsewhere. The real question is whether that debate is truly important if Trafalgar Square becomes a tidal pool or rowing down the Champs d'Elysées becomes the new fad du jour.

You have to wonder why Mr Steyn held in such awe. For all of the flash, the cleverness, the rhetorical swags --- well, his style does beguile. But personally, I remain unimpressed by the substitution of fact and reason with rhetorical flummery. So last year, so Ann Coulterish. And at the end of it, that's what we're talking about: style, and a lamentable lack of actual argument, well-reasoned and considered.


13 Comments:

Blogger Timmy the G said...

A perfect read on the egragious Mr. Steyn. His skill with a turn of phrase cannot hide that fact that he is a soulless shell happily whoring right-wing talking points. Brilliant.

Friday, 07 January, 2005  
Blogger Timmy the G said...

Ooops...that should read egregious. Note to self: don't use big words if you can't spell them.:)

Friday, 07 January, 2005  
Blogger treehugger said...

Michael, I really enjoyed your post. Absolutely a brilliant rebuttal of Steyn and plenty of other naysayer theories on global warming.

Friday, 07 January, 2005  
Blogger mahigan said...

Well that pretty much kick the crap out of Rule #1 doesn't it? :->

Friday, 07 January, 2005  
Blogger Ian said...

Brilliant bit of work, Michael. I read this drivel last month in the online Torygraph and was stunned by the deliberate ignorance of it all. By misrepresenting evolution as opposed to adaptation, macroclimate and microclimate, and then conflating it all with social studies in order to take another potshot at the welfare state, Steyn has demonstrrated that he's a scientific sciolist and a dishonest poltroon.


Much to Steyn's dismay, it _is_ all about the algae and krill -- or perhaps he's unaware that "top of the food chain" means that you have to ensure that there are enough of these little creatures around to feed the creatures that _Lardbuttus americanus_ (note the correct use of capitalization, unlike Mr. Steyn's usage) and other fictional species feed on. Stick to writing about theatre, Mark.

Friday, 07 January, 2005  
Blogger Declan said...

Great post Michael, I saw that article and had the same reaction, but you did a great job of taking the time to clearly point out the distortions, the dishonesty and the idiocy (well a fair bit of it anyway - you can only write so much).

You're right that Steyn is a true case of style over substance. He should probably go into writing fiction (officially, that is).

Saturday, 08 January, 2005  
Blogger jc said...

At the risk of being branded a heritic - and sitting in my supposed to be balmy, is -2, office - I am just trying to get a handle on what you are driving at.

Is Mark wrong on global warming? The jury, as they say, is out. The evidence points to various bits of climate change but is it within the boundaries of the last, say, 1000 years? And what, if anything causes that change? Is it SUVs? Is is a fluctuation in solar output? (Why were Dickensian winters so damn cold?)

And, hey, if there is global warming and if it is caused by all those SUVs does it actually matter. I mean it matters a bit, but does it matter a lot? Say in comparison to a tsunami or the AIDS epidemic?

Not to worry though, if we are to believe another side of the potty left the problem should be over by 2030 when we run out of oil altogether and revert back to Amish hood. Cool. (Though I have to admit getting up every couple of hours to put a log on the woodstove was less than fun...so was running out of water because the power was out and the pump didn't work;but if that's what it takes to save the krill and prevent grass in Antartica...)

Friday, 14 January, 2005  
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