Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.   Read More


A Harvest Prayer

Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Harvest Sunday (Sept. 23rd), 2012

Lord of all Creation, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty and bounty of this earth, which we reflect on in this season of harvest.  As the Psalmist said,

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.  
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.  
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

Great gift-giving God, for most of us today in the West, this celebration is perfunctory, a reminder of a quaint and long-ago time when we depended on the rhythm of the seasons, depended on the bounty of summer and autumn to sustain us through the dearth of winter.  Today (even in Scotland) we live in a perpetual summer of bounty, well-fed, supplied with wine and oil in abundance.  We heartily thank you for these blessings, and ask that you would help make us more grateful day by day, but we pray also for deliverance from the blindness and callousness that such easy prosperity can cause.  Help us remember today the billions of our brothers and sisters who do not share in this bounty, many of whom still depend each year on a good harvest to keep any food on their table.

Lord of life, autumn is not only a time of bounty, a time to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of creation, but also a reminder of its fragility, of mortality.  The sun retreats, the warmth and light ebbs, the trees grow brown and wither; even as the fruits fall from laden branches and the fields yield their grain, the plants that give us life shrivel and die, until the cycle of new life begins in Spring.  For us today, Lord, who have been greedily harvesting from nature’s bounty without pause for generations, who have reaped where we have not sown, this reminder of fragility and mortality carries an extra uneasiness, a sense of urgency.  All around us are signs that the cycles of summer and winter, springtime and harvest as we have known them may not last much longer, that after our long harvest of the earth’s resources, creation as a whole withers under the weight of our demands—as Gerald Manley Hopkins lamented,

“all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil; 
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil 
is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Gracious God, forgive us our heedless ways, and give us the courage and conviction to change them.  Teach us how to care for this rich earth rightly, that it may yield its plenteous fruits for future generations, and above all for those in other parts of the world who suffer now in want—want that is magnified by the changing climate, as streams dry up that once were full, grain withers in unprecedented heat, and storms wreak havoc on homes and harvests. 

God our Father, you have created not merely earth, sky, and water, plants and animals, but also the human race, and blessed it with innumerable gifts of wisdom and skill.  At this harvest time, we can thank you for the rich harvest of another sort, in which our church is reaping the fruits of the many human labors that have gone into building up its worship and ministries over many years.  We thank you especially for the harvest of the Connect Groups, years in planning, and finally launched this month.  We pray that you would bless them to become places of loving fellowship and empower them to be beacons of light shining in our communities.  We thank you also for the harvest of our School of Theology, another ministry long planned that has come to fruition this Fall.  We pray that through these classes, your Word would be opened up as never before to those attending, that their faith would be strengthened and enriched.  Strengthen Jeremy and Graham as they lead this ministry. 

As these two examples suggest, this time of year is not merely a time of endings, but of beginnings, as new seeds are sown to prepare a future harvest.  As students return to their studies, and some are beginning university or postgraduate studies for the first time, we pray that you would watch over them and be a light unto their path.  Keep the students of this church faithful in your ways, remembering that the study of your Word is of greater value than all other earthly knowledge.  Bring new students through the doors of this church, and help us to welcome them and provide a home and community for them here.  

Finally, Lord, we thank you for the wine that gladdens man’s heart and the bread that strengthens it, more than any earthly bread and wine—the Eucharistic feast we are about to share with you.  We thank you for taking the labor of human hands, the harvest of the old creation, and returning it to us as the firstfruits of the new creation, the eternal life of your Son.

In His all-powerful name we pray.  Amen.


Leithart, Bavinck, and the Nature of Natures

A few weeks ago, Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart engaged in a debate of sorts on their blogs on the subject of regeneration, which morphed somehow into a debate on natures and substances.  Without trying to delve into all the (often elusive) details of what they were up to, Leithart was particularly concerned with maintaining a strong emphasis on the mediation of God’s actions through creation, which meant, for him at least, that we needed to be wary of doctrines of “natures” and “substances” which reify creatures over against God.  Instead, as he argued in “Do Things Have Natures?“, we need to insist that God is always dynamically at work in and through his creatures, which means that if God is a historical God, one who unfolds his will in a drama of creation, fall, and new creation, then “natures” are not fixed quantities, but potentially take on new properties as God uses and transforms them in this drama.  One way of looking at this issue is to ask, “What are miracles?” For if God is always dynamically at work in his creation, and doing new things in it, then the miraculous is only relative.

Once put this way, the question seems to largely turn on the doctrine of providence, particularly the sub-headings usually called “preservation” and “concurrence.”  Preservation, essentially, insists that the Christian God is not a deist God; his creation is always dependent upon his sustaining power, which preserves it in being.  Concurrence insists that the Christian God is not a pantheist God; he is always and everywhere at work in his creatures, and yet they have a created integrity of their own which allows them to have a certain fixed identity in vis-a-vis God.  In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck offers a wonderfully lucid and balanced treatment of these issues, and a little walk through his text may prove instructive for resolving these thorny issues. 

 

Bavinck first affirms that we must not blur together creation and providence (which is precisely what is at stake, it seems, in asking whether God changes the natures he has created), but at the same time must hold them together very carefully, never attributing “independence” to the created order (which was Leithart’s overarching concern):

“The two are so fundamentally distinct that they can be contrasted as labor and rest.  At the same time they are so intimately related and bound up with each other that preservation itself can be called ‘creating’ (Ps. 104:30; 148:5; Isa. 45:7; Amos 4:13).  Preservation itself, after all, is also a divine work, , no less great and glorious than creation. . . . Although distinct from his being, it has no independent existence; independence is tantamount to nonexistence.  The whole world with everything that is and occurs in it is subject to divine government. . . . Scripture knows no independent creatures; this would be an oxymoron” (RD II:592)

The two dangers, here, he says, are deism and pantheism, as just mentioned.  Leithart is certainly leaning heavily against the former danger, and one consequence of this is to tend to blur the distinction between miracle and God’s “ordinary” action in creation.  Bavinck says that in pantheism, means that “there is no room for miracle, the self-activity of secondary causes, personality, freedom . . .” and over against it, “it was the task of Christian theology to maintain the distinction between creation and preservation, the self-activity of secondary causes, the freedom of personality . . .” (599) If we emphasize so much the immanence of God in creation, if we make everything a “miracle” because it is the direct work of God, then we also thereby make nothing a miracle, because the natural order has no self-activity.

Bavinck defines the relationship of preservation and concurrence: “Preservation tells us that nothing exists, not only no substance, but also no power, no activity, no idea, unless it exists totally from, through, and to God.  Concurrence makes known to us the same preservation as an activity such that, far from suspending the existence of creatures, it affirms and maintains it” (605).  Both emphases must be maintained.  On the one hand,

“God is never idle.  He never stands by passively looking on.  With divine potency he is always active in both nature and grace.  Providence, therefore, is a positive act, not a giving permission to exist but a causing to exist and working from moment to moment.  If it consisted merely in a posture of non destruction, it would not be God who upheld things, but things would exist in and by themselves, using power granted at the creation.  And this is an absurd notion.  A creature is, by definition, of itself a completely dependent being: that which does not exist of itself cannot for a moment exist by itself either.” (605)  

This side of the question is heavily emphasized in Leithart’s post.

On the other hand, 

“Creation and providence are not identical.  If providence meant a creating anew every moment, creatures would also have to be produced out of nothing every moment.  In that case, the continuity, connectedness, and ‘order of causes’ would be totally lost, and there would be no development or history.  All created beings would then exist in appearance only and be devoid of all independence, freedom, and responsibility.” (607)

 

Now, his discussion of concurrence is where things get very interesting.  Bavinck argues that we cannot  attempt to speak of development within natures, unless we can talk about existent natures in the first place.  A determinate creation must precede providence.  Otherwise all is mere flux:

“Now providence serves to take the world from its beginning and to lead it to its final goal; it goes into effect immediately after the creation and brings to development all that was given in that creation.  Creation, conversely, was aimed at providence; creation conferred on creatures the kind of existence that can be brought to development in and by providence.  For the world was not created in a state of pure potency, as chaos or as a nebulous cloud, but as an ordered cosmos, and human beings were placed in it not as helpless toddlers but as an adult man and an adult woman.  Development could only proceed from such a ready-made world, and that is how creation presented it to providence. . . . Every creature received a nature of its own, and with that nature san existence, a life, and a law of its own.  Just as the moral law was increated in the heart of Adam as the rule for his life, so all creatures carried in their own nature the principles and laws for their own development.” (609)

It is at this point he brings up miracles, and although making the point that we should not think of miracles as divine interventions in creation, since God is never not working in creation, wants to avoid pushing this line of argument too far:

“For that reason a miracle is not a violation of natural law nor an intervention in the natural order.  From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event, and in the counsel of God and the plan of the world it occupies as much an equally well-ordered and harmonious place as any natural phenomenon.  In miracles God only puts into effect a special force that, like any other force, operates in accordance with its own nature and therefore also has an outcome of its own.

But at the creation God built his laws into things, fashioning an order by which the things themselves are interconnected.  God is not dependent on causes, but things do depend on one another.  That interconnectedness is of many kinds.  Although in general it can be called ‘causal,’ the word ‘causal’ in this sense must by no means be equated with ‘mechanical,’ as materialism would have us do.  A mechanical connection is only one mode in which a number of things in the world relate to each other.  Just as creatures received a nature of their own in the creation and differ among themselves, so there is also difference in the laws in conformity with which they function and in the relation in which they stand to each other.  

“These laws and relations differ in every sphere. . . . It is the providence of God that, interlocking with creation, maintains and brings to full development all these distinct natures, forces, and ordinances.  In providence God respects and develops—and does not nullify the things he called into being in creation. It does not pertain to divine providence to corrupt the nature of things but to preserve [that nature]. . . . Thus, therefore, God preserves and governs all creatures according to their nature, the angels in one way, humans in another, and the latter again in a away that differs from animals and plants.  But insofar as God in his providence maintains things in their mutual relatedness and makes creatures subserve each other’s existence and life, that providence can be called mediate.” (610-11)

 

So yes, things do have natures, determinate ordered causal relations which God has appointed at creation and continues to uphold at every moment.  These natures may unfold in time as seeds do into trees, as God brings them to full development, but in this process, he does not have to remake what he has once made; his providence does not become a form of continuous creation.


Nothing but the Creed?

A friend’s recent musings on just how useless the Ten Commandments were as a summary of Christian ethical teaching (aside from the first commandment, it’s hard to think of a single one of which even the definition, much less the application, commands anything like universal assent) got me to wondering whether the case with dogmatic theology was in fact any better than with moral theology.  

I do think there are solutions, of course, to this chaos of disagreement, ways of sorting out the wheat of legitimate disagreement from the chaff of heterodoxy and spurious interpretation, so to speak, but it’s worth dwelling for a sobering moment or two on the full extent of doctrinal diversity that can be found within those professing faith in Christ.  This can be done by a line-by-line consideration of the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Should we really call God “the Father”?  Isn’t God also a “Mother”?  Shouldn’t (S)he be genderless?
What do we mean by saying that God is “Almighty”?  Open theists would say that it does not mean he has any power over the future, or over the wills of free creatures.
What does it mean that he made heaven and earth?  As in, created each creature in its particularity?  Or simply the raw material for the Big Bang?  Or something in between?  And that’s just about the “earth” and the “visible” side of things.  What falls under the “heaven” and “invisible” side?  For medievals, far more entities fell under this heading than do for most modern Christians.  What are we to think of angels and all that?

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Insert all the disputes that led to this credal formulation here.  Of course, perhaps we might accept that subsequently, to be “Christian” is to be bound by this decision, and all earlier opinions are excluded from Christianity.  But what does it mean for the Son to be “begotten of the Father before all worlds . . . begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”?  There’s some complicated metaphysics here, and there’s a massive difference of opinion among theologians today (and at the level of popular piety) on the metaphysical makeup of the Trinity; many of these opinions fall into what would classically have been condemned as modalism or tritheism.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man;

Insert all the disputes leading up to the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon here.  Important as those later conciliar formulations may be, they do not seem to be definitive of “Christianity” since both the Nestorian Church and the Monophysite churches continued for many centuries thereafter.  Even within Chalcedonian orthodoxy, monothelitism and monoenergism were widely asserted in the following centuries.  Even among those who formally reject these two, significant disputes about the relation between the two natures, the relation between the natures and the one person, the communication of attributes, the role of Mary in the incarnation, etc., continue to vex theologians.  And never mind at the level of popular piety, where all kinds of deviant understandings of what it means for Jesus to be God and man proliferate—I expect that the majority of evangelical Christians, if subjected to a test on their Christology, would come out as Docetists, Apollinarians, Nestorians, or some curious blend of the above.  Among modern theologians, there is considerable restlessness, if not outright rejection, of the Chalcedonian formula, and a desire to articulate Christ’s human identity in much more robust terms than those typical of earlier Christianity.

On a totally different note, what do we mean by saying he came “for us men and for our salvation”?  Was the incarnation strictly oriented toward the atonement?  Or was it oriented toward the divinization of the race?  Was it necessitated by the Fall, or intrinsic in the logic of creation?  Theological disagreements with wide-ranging implications on these questions date back to the beginning of Christian theology and still rage today.

and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried;

Who suffered?  Just the human Christ?  The divine person according to his human nature?  The divine person without qualification?  The whole Trinity?  Modern theology has been torn with such disputes for decades, and they have their analogues in earlier theological debates.  (Note that the Nicene Creed conveniently leaves out the contentious “descended into hell” clause of the Apostles’ Creed.)  The mention of “Pontius Pilate,” while perhaps not controversial in itself, raises a whole set of issues about the historical particularity and historical reliability of the Scriptural accounts.  To what extent does our faith depend upon the reliability of the specific historical claims made in the Bible.

and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father;

Let’s assume we can all agree on the first clause (though there are certainly plenty of liberal Christians who don’t, and don’t think it matters too much), but what do the latter two clauses mean?  Clearly these are somewhat metaphorical.  Heaven isn’t actually a place lying vertically above the earth; God doesn’t really have a right hand.  So concealed under these metaphorical spatial descriptions are actually descriptions of activity—we are trying to describe just what it is that Jesus Christ is now doing in the time between his resurrection and return.  Traditionally, these activities have been described primarily as intercession and reigning.  But in what exactly does his intercession consist?  Is it an ongoing intercession, a pleading to the Father on our behalf?  Or is it simply the ongoing intercessory value of his once-for-all sacrifice?  Theologians disagree.  And can it be described in terms of a “treasury of merit” that can be dispensed by the Church, as in medieval Catholic theology?  For that matter, is Christ the sole intercessor before the throne of God, or do other saints and particularly Mary play this role?
When we come to the question of reigning, the disagreements become even more wide-ranging.  The recent disputes over “Reformed two-kingdoms theology” have thrown again into sharp relief how much depends on how one understands the ongoing reign of the ascended Christ.  Is it an inward reign over hearts, or an outward reign over institutions?  Is it a reign just over his Church, and what does that mean?  Or is it a reign over all creation?  To what end?  The preservation of the created order, or its renewal?  To what extent is his reign exercised through creaturely agents, whether in the Church (pope, priest, presbyter), or in the State?

and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Insert the myriads of disputes over eschatology here.  When Christ comes again, will he destroy this present earth, or restore it?  Will he physically reign here before destroying this earth?  Will there be a Rapture?  A Great Tribulation?  Will his return and reign simply be a continuation of that renewal begun by his Church already?  When Christ “judges the quick and the dead,” what’s that look like?  Is it on the basis of faith alone, or works too?  Do the righteous get just a “well done, good and faithful servant” or do they have to go through a purgatory, whether physical or psychological?  What about the wicked?  Notice there is no doctrine of hell spelled out here.  Universalists, annihilationists, and those with a “traditional” doctrine of hell can all, in theory, unite under the banner of the Nicene Creed.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life;

Ha, what does this mean?  No branch of theology is so murky as pneumatology, which is mainly just used as a launchpad for speculation on every other branch of theology.  In particular, disagreements about the role of the Holy Ghost are implicated in many questions of ecclesiology and soteriology, as we seek to define the ongoing role of the Spirit in mediating redemption to the Church and individual believers.

who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;

Again, Trinitarian disputes here.  Of course, notoriously, this is a point of Trinitarian theology at which the two most ancient branches of the Church part ways and cannot even agree on the credal formula, and the renaissance of Trinitarian theology (or shall we say speculation?) over the past century has multiplied the various forms of disagreement on the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

who spoke by the prophets.

Aha!  Inspiration!  Insert all contemporary disputes about the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Scriptures here, disputes that increasingly lie not simply between “liberals” and “evangelicals” but within evangelicalism.  And that’s not to mention disagreements about the ongoing role of the Spirit and spiritual gifts.  Does the Spirit continue to speak in prophecy today?  Or just through the magisterium?  Or not at all?

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Thankfully, everyone agrees on this one, right?  Ha!  Orthodox Christians today do not agree on the meaning of any of the adjectives here—”one” “holy” “catholic” “apostolic”—or even of the noun, “Church”—are we talking about the invisible Church or the visible?  Or is that even a helpful dichotomy?  If we’re talking about the visible, how is it identified?  Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name?  Wherever discipline is rightly administered?  Wherever bishops preserving the apostolic succession are?  Wherever there are bishops in fellowship with the bishop of Rome?

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
What does that mean?  Are we talking about baptismal regeneration?  Or is baptism merely a sign of an inner grace that has nothing to do with it?  Or something in between?  All the questions of sacramental efficacy could be inserted here (and notice the Creed makes no mention of the Eucharist, so the whole vast range of opinions on that doctrine can all be accommodated under the banner of the Nicene Creed as well).  Plus, with baptism, you have additional disputes about age (infant or adult) and mode (immersion, sprinkling, etc.—this may seem trivial, but for some Christians, it isn’t!).

and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The disputes about eschatology mentioned above arise again here.  Plus questions like, when our bodies are resurrected, what kind of continuity will they have with our present bodies?  What will our life in “heaven” look like?  Eternal worship?  A never-ending party?  Something kinda like our present lives, only without sin and suffering?


Merchants of Doubt: A Review

This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time.  The book is not flawless, to be sure.  As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply.  Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”  Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate. 

This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book.  The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction.  The science is being corrupted by greed.  And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.  

A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one.  Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder.  If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy?  Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.  

 

The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress.  In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg.  It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry. 

Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy.  (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.)  How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere?  And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent.  They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.   

Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise?  It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men.  They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism.  And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph.  Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer.  Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained.  (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.) 

Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement.  Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention.  In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.  

 

Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science.  The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced.  The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless.  Rather, their product was doubt.  The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be.  The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain.  Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious.  As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well.  Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk.  Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.  

Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here.  We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.  (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book  were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics.  The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.)  These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual.  What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to.  Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking.  Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election.  The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task.  All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain.  Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty.  Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty.  Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points.  Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials.  When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”  

 

So what is to be done about this?  Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty.  They conclude

“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative.  And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving.  If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information.  For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .

“Don’t get us wrong.  Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse.  The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused.  It needs to be very particular.  Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.  But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth.  But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty.  The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”

In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty.  In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones.  If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.  

 

My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones.  Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite.  But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this.  Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well.  I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism.  But not all, and not always.  The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way.  Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet.  Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness.  After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.  

 

So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time.  That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism.  Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.