Guys Named Joe

December 8, 2009

Cross-posted at the Center for American Progress’s WonkRoom:

When elected officials like Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) cry “scientific fascism” about the scientists at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit — and then define the fascism as “intimidation in the scientific community of people who wish to be contrary what the convention wisdom is” — this as much demonstrates how laughably weak Sensenbrenner’s understanding of basic political concepts is as it impugns his credibility as an interpreter of what the scientists were actually discussing.

Oh, sure, the East Anglia scientists were irredeemably engaged in the deplorable practice of weeding out bad science. They threatened to do so by disregarding weak articles, by rejecting journals which, in their estimation, were publishing pieces driven more by political considerations than by scientific considerations. That’s downright fascistic. How dare they!

It is by now an expectable comedy to hear shouting heads like Glenn Beck, Fox Business Network anchor David Asman, and others cry “fascist” and compare environmental progressives and climate scientists with Hitler and Stalin, but it is somewhat more surprising to see similar such claims coming from the otherwise more sedate halls of Congress. Of course, we’ve seen it all before. In this hyperbolic age, the chorus accompanies virtually all political matters, reaching its illogical extreme in screeds such as this one on Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com:

  • The Progressive movement owns the Klan.
  • The Progressive Movement owns Nazi Eugenics.
  • The Neo-Progressive Movement owns Global Warming.

Sensenbrenner’s comments on the CRU hack cannot be understood independently of this political context. This is particularly true in the climate arena, where one’s political affiliations more or less signal where one stands on the science. An attack on climate science is an attack on progressivism, or so the story goes.

As a philosopher, I am at pains to understand how cries of fascism ever gain any traction when coupled with references to the political left. The thesis that progressives are somehow fascist has all the complexity of the “Guys Named Joe” hypothesis: the specious observation that because some very bad people in world history have been named Joe, that therefore most other guys named Joe are also bad.

At heart progressivism is a left-leaning political orientation, privileging equality over inequality, seeking to give voice to the weak by recognizing personhood, and aiming to advance autonomy by reducing vulnerability, among other things. These are core progressive principles, rooted in the writings of theorists as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant, among many others.

If progressivism is embodied by sensitivities to injustice, fascism is the very opposite of this. It is almost unilaterally agreed that fascism is a phenomenon of the right wing. It stresses rule by the few, encourages force over diplomacy, draws strength by belittling the weak, and in the end is an ideology of control. Truth is, political theory is remarkably ill-equipped to offer a clear definition of fascism, but these are its widely-recognized contours.

Fascism, Communism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Progressivism — these are conceptual categories, distinguished by what they accept and reject. They’re not pejorative name-tags to be affixed on an offending party. If Hitler calls himself a socialist, this does not make him a socialist. If Stalin called himself a progressive, this does not make him a progressive. If Glenn Beck finds a bath of communist red in the collected artwork adorning buildings commissioned by the 20th century’s most renowned capitalist, this does not make Rockefeller a communist, and it does not make it the case that capitalism is communism.

Politicians, apparently, need little be bothered by political theory, just as they need little be bothered by science. There’s nothing fascistic about rejecting bad arguments. There’s nothing particularly progressive about it either. That’s just how science works, sometimes with all of the nooks and wrinkles revealed in the e-mails. To hurl epithets at the climate scientists as if they are part of a conceptually-confused political cabal is a distortion of the highest order. It certainly doesn’t add clarity to an already muddy political discourse.


  1. OK, didn’t have any success over at Roger’s new place, but Eli has a question

    What is Real Climate’s politics?

  2. I think Roger and I differ slightly on this issue. From my vantage, there’s just no escaping the normative undercurrent in science. From his vantage, this is a political undercurrent. I’ll argue from my vantage.

    At minimum, norms and principles influence the questions that scientists explore. It’s not as if, after all, climate scientists are only interested in the climate science for its scientific intrigue (like a mathematician might be interested in the same math problem for 30 years). They’re motivated, in part, by a concern that the climate is shifting in a particular direction, that CC is caused by us, and that this is a bad thing. It would be hard to explain the proliferation in climate scientists and research for climate science otherwise. The fact is, there are many more climate scientists nowadays than there are astrophysicists. Clearly this is partly a function of funding; but that funding is rooted in a normative justification about the importance of the work being done.

    That’s fine by me, of course, because I think the climate question is a deeply important one, more important, for instance, than a question about the climate on Saturn… but it is important to acknowledge that the question is ultimately motivated by extra-scientific considerations.

    You can read a bit more about it here.


    All that to say, basically, that while it’s true that there are values guiding even the folks at Real Climate, we have ways of trying to crowd out our normative predilections so that they don’t color our scientific judgment. The scientific method and peer review are some of those ways; as are credentialing systems like our PhD infrastructure.

    • you’re a climate hack

      face it

    • I am a total hack.

    • Having known quite a few climate scientists, Eli thinks you underestimate the mathematical fascination.

      • Possibly so, Eli, but (a) even in mathematics there are values (say, in the “beauty” of a proof or in the “complexity” of a problem); and (b) since I also know a fair number of climate scientists, I’ll attest that those that I know are quite concerned about the state of affairs. Maybe they’re not particularly involved in the politics, but they are concerned about the degradation of wildlife or the loss of habitat or the acidification of the oceans.

  3. By your definition, progressives would be staunchly anti-abortion, since who is more vulnerable than a baby in the womb and in need of an advocate. Yet it is the progressives who demand abortion on demand, any time for any reason. Socialist and communist countries have shown little respect for the rights of the individual, placing a higher privilege on the state, and eliminting troublesome individuals or groups when necessary to maintain power.

    The Nazis were socialists, but like most socialists they sought to create equality by creating equal misery rather than by elevating the less fortunate. In this country, today, what socialist wants to elevate the poor rather than make the rich poor? The mantra we hear from the progressives is the rich have too much money and they need to be taxed more (made less rich).

    • Sorry. You’re confused. I was talking about personhood and autonomy. You’re talking about non-persons.

      But sure, you can twist it around however you’d like. You can use the language to suggest that Nazis are socialists. That doesn’t make them socialists. They were fascists who sought to achieve their ends via methods that involved eradication of the weak and disenfranchised.

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