Posted by: Chris | April 13, 2010

Chris Mooney: Oakshottian

Chris Mooney, a prominent science writer and politico, recently had a discussion with Eli Kintisch, a proponent of geoengineering, about the more direct approaches to averting global climate change.  I have not listened to the discussion itself, but I do want to highlight a snippet excerpted onto Mooney’s blog.  In it, they discuss the validity of the “playing God” argument against geoengineering, which neither seems to find all that convincing.  In fact, they both go further than that, according to the post, asserting that they cannot even comprehend a logical argument in its favor and blow it all off as so much religious superstition.  They really don’t seem cognizant that “playing God” is more an argument about epistomology not theology, which is especially shocking in Mooney’s case, seeing as he used to write a column called “Doubt and About” for the Skeptical Inquirer.

I know that the whole “man’s reach exceeds his grasp” thing  is an obvious point that really doesn’t need belaboring in these parts, so I will just emphasize how unsettling it is that two journalists who write near exclusively about climate change policy not only find such arguments unpersuasive but not “at all a rational argument, or a sound basis for public policy.”  And this is on skeptiscism of human understanding of the effects of something as drastic (or “uncontroversial,” to quote Mooney) as dumping millions tons of lime into the ocean to sequester more CO2 as carbonic acid in a planet wide titration experiment.  It really puts building a theme park full of dinosaurs into perspective.

This can also serve as yet another data point in our ongoing discussion of the public perception of conservatives and their percieved “classical conservative” tendencies.  It is interesting that someone who wrote a book about the conservative approach to science literally cannot concieve of the basic Burkean argument against change.  I wonder if most people, when they hear conservatives complaining about “playing God”, thinking its a reference to Genesis and not cane toads.



  1. Hate to hate on the hating, but I think Mooney is actually responding to those who say it is wrong for us ever to try to redesign nature because only God is permitted to do that. He doesn’t seem to deny the rationality of allowing considerations of man’s reach exceeding his grasp to influence public policy; he’s denying the rationality of concluding that “because we aren’t God, we should never try to redesign nature.”

    His conclusion, after all, is “I actually find the careful, consequentialist reasoning of the scientists who tilt towards at least studying geoengineering to be much more intellectually rigorous and convincing.” In other words, there shouldn’t be an indefeasible presumption against geoengineering. This view is compatible with accepting the desirability of a presumption simpliciter against it.

  2. I would agree with you that, if Mooney was only responding to the few people who have a reflexive religious opposition to “playing God,” then my hating would be uncalled for. However, something more complex is afoot here. I would argue that Mooney is employing a variant of the strawman approach here, lumping all those who would argue along similar lines into the umbrella of “argument from superstition.” I concluded this because Mooney, from the snippet, seems to posit that there is no other justification for an opposition to “playing God” other than the religious one, rather than simply highlighting a specific rationale for ridicule.

    However, I do admit that the passage is a bit vague and some one with a charitable inclination might be able to squeeze your reading from the text. Fortunately, this is not the first time Mooney has written on the subject. A quick Google search pointed me to this article ( from 2005 where Mooney reviews, of all things, Revenge of the Sith. In it, he clearly lumps those making the secular argument from epistemological modesty into the religious strawman category and again cannot concieve of any other interpretation.

    While, especially in light of the final graf where, I admit, he strikes a conciliatory tone, one could force your interpretation of his views, I think it is fairly indisputable in light of the second article that my initial reading more likely captures his intent and thus all of the various muttering that I followed that observation with still hold.

    PS: Chris demands to know how you enabled HTML formatting in comments

  3. You write that “Mooney…seems to posit that there is no other justification for an opposition to “playing God” other than the religious one.”

    From the article you link:

    1. “Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused.”

    2. “The broader point is that simply saying “no” doesn’t qualify as wisdom, unless you’re also capable of explaining why.”

    Sounds a lot like someone who is admitting there may be sound arguments against redesigning nature, while insisting that the slogans (“Don’t play God”) and “gross caricatures of mad-scientist megalomaniacs out to accrue for themselves powers reserved only for God” don’t cut it.

    So, no, he is targeting a particularly shrill form of the argument from humility; not the argument from humility itself. (Of course, it could be that the perlocutionary effect of his remarks is to poison people’s minds against all versions of the argument from humility. But the fact that people don’t read carefully doesn’t prove that they aren’t misreading.)

  4. CF, I agree with you that (1-2) refute one of my original, poorly articulated statements, but they do not prove the point you are attempting to make. What (1-2) show is that Mooney does not exhibit epistemic closure (to borrow a trending topic) with regards to the argument from humility. However, the article I linked to still demonstrates two points:

    A. While Mooney allows for the possibility for a logical argument from humility, he cannot fathom what one could be.

    B. He lists a number of works that clearly make the secular argument from humility and assumes they make the strawman religious argument and then condemns them for doing so.

    Point B I think is a very definite discomfirmation of the stronger argument you are making. It is quite clear that Jurassic Park (to choose the work I am most familiar with) is arguing about epistemology, but Mooney seems clearly ignorant of that fact. No strained inference or stretched quote can cover that up.

    Thus, the original argument I laid out still stands, and all the points that flowed from it still do so. Chris Mooney, science journalist, cannot conceive of the argument from humility (though, as CF has twice noted, he does humbly admit to the the potential for its existence) and assumes all people who do make said argument are automatically unreasonable religious nutjobs.

  5. So what you’re saying is that Mooney “doesn’t exhibit epistemic closure…with regards to the argument from humility” and also “cannot conceive of the argument from humility…and assumes all people who do make said argument are automatically unreasonable religious nutjobs.”* If not exhibiting epistemic closure on an issue means not taking a stand on it (and your guess is as good as mine whether this is so), then I’m not seeing how both of these claims can be true. (“I’m not going to take a stand one way or another on p, I just can’t conceive how p could be true, and judge anyone who accepts it to be an unreasonable nutjob” is contradictory.)

    I recommend you accept the first and reject the second. Mooney doesn’t take a stand on whether some version of the argument from humility works, but that’s because he isn’t concerned to evaluate the merits of arguments from humility in general. “He is targeting a particularly shrill form of the argument from humility; not the argument from humility itself.”

    * It’s the unreasonable nutjobs that really get to me.

  6. Chris’ claims are not actually necessarily contradictory, although they may appear so at first glance. It’s basically the same line of reasoning by which an agnostic could sneer at any religious justification: there’s no evidence, so you can’t know whether the justification is true or false. But because there’s no evidence, it’s ridiculous to assert that it is true, so you must be an unreasonable religious nutjob if you do so.

  7. Oh Captain my Captain, it is incredibly easy to see how both views can be held simultaneously. Point 1) concerns the feasibility of some one arriving at a logical argument against “playing God” (which Mooney admits is feasible) but point 2) concerns the actual nature of said argument (which Mooney cannot fathom). Basically Mooney takes the stand that A) it is not necessarily illogical to argue against “playing God” but B) all the arguments he has seen and can conceive of fall under the same illogical argument from superstition. My point has always been that, in declaring B) he wrongly categorizes people who make the very valid “argument from humility”/”classical conservative” argument as religious nutjubs because he, for whatever reason, does not recognize their actual argument. From this, one raise a number of (interesting?) questions about Mooney, science journalism, and the state of the right.

    In short, I agree with MM (I think). Mooney is open to people making the case against playing God (hence, no epistemic closure) but does not know how one would go about doing such a thing (hence being an ironic Oakshottian).

  8. MM: There’s a difference between the agnostic you imagine and my “not taking a stand on the issue” agnostic, which is that your agnostic does take a stand on the question whether God exists (he thinks there actually isn’t enough evidence out there to decide one way or another), my agnostic doesn’t know (or isn’t considering) even that. He is, quite simply, not taking a stand. To not take a stand and yet think someone who does take a stand ridiculous is, I think, contradictory (because isn’t thinking someone else’s stand on issue ridiculous itself taking a stand on it?).

    In the context of this discussion, that is a pretty minor point, though, and I think it’s distracting from the (perhaps less interesting) bottom line, which is that Mooney quite clearly isn’t interested in making a comprehensive evaluation of arguments from humility; his purpose, in the articles Chris links, is to condemn a reflexive, unreasoned fear of experimentation that (as Mooney sees it) is tapped by a lot of film and has religious roots.

    This is the most charitable reading of Mooney and it is also consistent with what he says (and does not say – notice we don’t have him here lampooning Oakeshott, Burke or anyone other non-entertainers), which is why I read him that way. There are advantages to reading him otherwise – frustrated surveyors of the scientific scene get to feel superior to successful ones, you can it as an embarkation point to some grand political synthesis – but it isn’t the right thing to do.

    (Needless to say, in paragraph two I switched to addressing Chris.)

  9. […] Chris Mooney, most notable for penning The Republican War on Science, wrote a Mother Jones article  rehashing a lot of cognitive science studies on why and how people resist facts contrary to their beliefs and leveraging them for more ideological ends.  Kevin Drum was displeased with Mooney’s characterization, in a sop towards balance, of the anti-vaccination movement as broadly left-wing, while Mooney defends himself here. […]

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