George Monbiot posts his last reply to Alexander Cockburn.
Wisely, Monbiot has chosen not to continue arguing with a crank. At a certain point it’s always a lost cause. And considering Cockburn’s evidence one would be crazy to continue.
It turns out, the sole-source of his rambling diatribe against all global warming science – the papers from Martin “Guy I met on a boat” Hertzburg – turned out not to be papers at all. They were never published, never peer reviewed. The only peer-reviewed literature Cockburn managed to find to agree with him was published in Lyndon Larouche’s fake journal 21st century Science and Technology!
My favorite part though is Monbiot’s sad realization he’s got nothing but a crank to argue with, and his somewhat mournful decision to write off Cockburn for good. He hits upon some big truths about cranks.
I have now learnt that it is pointless to seek to argue with Cockburn. Because he cannot admit that he got the science wrong, he merely raises the volume and widens the scope of his attack. Resorting to grapeshot, he now invokes just about every crazy theory ever raised by those who say that manmade global warming is not happening. It would require an entire website to answer them all. Happily, it already exists – www.realclimate.org – and, over the years, it has dealt with every new issue he raises, drawing on peer-reviewed papers. But Cockburn will not read these refutations. He has answered none of his critics; he has not even listened to them. For this reason, this will be my last posting in this debate.
I sign off with sadness. I have followed Alexander Cockburn’s writing for many years and I have admired it. His has been an important and persuasive voice on many progressive issues. But I can no longer trust it. I realise that he is blinded by a conviction that he remains right whatever the facts might say. In his determination to admit nothing, he will cling to any straw, including the craziest fulminations of the ultra-right, and he will abandon the rigor and scepticism that once informed his journalism. I feel this as a loss. I am sure I am not the only one.
I get the feeling Monbiot and I are on the same wavelength here. It’s clear to anyone that Cockburn is now operating from the Crank HOWTO, at which point there is no reason for him to be further engaged. The sad thing is how when people start down the path of crankery, it seems so rare for them to recover. They become so emotionally invested in ideas that are so laughable, and lose all perspective about the importance of being right all the time.
There is also something very fundamental here to the nature of a crank. A crank would rather rail against all known facts for a future reward – the likely mistaken belief that one day they will experience vindication. They believe that one day they will be found right despite all the evidence that they were wrong all along, making their victory all that much sweeter. There is something in our culture that feeds this contrarian tendency, this desire to be right, no matter what the facts. Sadly in real life, people who act this way are called cranks. They are not pleasant, they are a pain in the ass, and chances are, they’re never going to come out on the right side of the science – only movies vindicate the true believers. Whether its evolution denialism, HIV/AIDS crankery, holocaust denial, or global warming denialism, the tendency is the same, cranks say, “Screw the facts, I’m right, and one day, one day we’ll be the ones laughing.”
17 thoughts on “The end of the Alexander Cockburn saga”
I’m confused here. On one hand it’s necessary to fight ignorance and idiocy (mostly by pointing it out) lest some small, innocent child somewhere may be guided to the dark side. On the other hand, it’s pointless to argue with a crank.
Can’t trust it? What adult would trust someone’s political ramblings wholesale as true and untainted?
You pose an important question when you ask, what makes cranks? It’s a topic that fascinates me.
A lot of writing on conspiracy theories veers towards the explosion of complexity since the world got global, and the need for some people to see the world in simplistic, conspiratorial terms.
Then there are the people who get sucked into tribal movements like the National Front, or cults: for such people, conspiracies serve to foster community spirit and knit members closer together (but united against outside corrupting influences).
I think a close study of conspiracists could say something fundamental about the modern world, but strangely enough most academics seem to regard it as a “hobby” topic. Which is damned suspicious if you ask me ^^
I blame Jackson Browne for this prevalent inability to trust. The guy really rides that conspiracy hobbyhorse and — damn him — does it through very catchy and popular tunes.
You’re right, it is suspicious. Could it be… A CONSPIRACY?
Yup, which is why they enjoy crying “persecution!” so much. It lets them know they’re on the right track — following in the august footsteps of Galileo et al. — and feeds their revenge fantasies against their interlocutors.
There’s a real emotional charge to be had in striving to overturn conventional wisdom, make your mark on the world, and contribute to human knowledge. And that can undoubtedly be a good thing. After all, that’s exactly what drives good scientists! The problem is that the cranks don’t do what scientists do, which is to test their ideas and temper them through the rigors of peer review.
The vast majority of denialists, on the other hand, prefer to simply parrot talking points fed them by shills of some stripe or another (preachers, industry “think tanks”, etc.). Even most of the denialist stuff that actually makes it into the scientific literature tends to be (poor) critiques or reviews of other people’s work (see: every ID paper ever, McIntyre and McKitrick, etc.).
Not that there isn’t value in criticism, and anything that makes it into the scientific literature (even the crank stuff) deserves at least the courtesy of being rebutted in the scientific literature, but when that’s the best your “side” can offer, it should be a tipoff that there really isn’t much there there.
I think it would be interesting to examine denialism from the side of the *listeners*. For instance, how many lies does one have to tell before one loses credibility? Monbiot has lost his “trust” in Cockburn – why only now? Cockburn’s been an idiot for years. Why are certain politicians trusted when they tell the most transparent of lies? Other than a coincidence of goals (politics makes strange bedfellows) just what is it in our psyches that allows a denialist to flourish when if he was your brother-in-law you’d throw him out?
Isn’t arguing with a crank akin to wrestling a pig? When all is said and done, nothing has been disclosed, there’s been no dignity, and everyone is covered in mud.
I like that expression MG. I think I might just steal it.
Hmm. Am I the only cynical atheist who immediately saw the parallel between cranks and fervent religious believers in this sentence: A crank would rather rail against all known facts for a future reward – the likely mistaken belief that one day they will experience vindication.
A believer would rather rail against all known facts for a future reward – the likely mistaken belief that one day the will experience paradise.
I need to go read that Crank HOWTO again with an eye towards religious fanaticism and see how many more parallels there are…
I’m starting to feel like I’m getting some real value from being here but, as far as what I don’t like, I will say this much:
Your collective cynicism is killing me.
Mark says scientists can’t do anything. You guys think, stereotypiclly, that war is bad and America might not be a force for good, etc. – it’s enough to get a person down.
Except for my recent bout with the fringe-dwellers in society, I’m a way-more upbeat atheist than you guys.
How about considering what we CAN do, huh?
If you ignore Cockburn maybe he will go away.
That reminds me of a story about Marvin Minsky:
In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
“What are you doing?” asked Minsky.
“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe,” Sussman replied.
“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.
“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play,” Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.
“So that the room will be empty.”
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.
It will be alright, if you just close your eyes.
First good laugh I’ve had in days.
Wonder why Monbiot didn’t get a prius? I guess his Clio is a decent alternative. But it makes his nearly 20 years of anti-auto preaching sound a little tinny, in retrospect.
I think that I may be considered a crank for I think that 9/11 was an inside job, and I think conspiracies are common. In fact, I personally have conspired many times, with friends, to break laws by smoking pot. But I digress. I know nothing about Cockburn, but what is a crank other than someone who does not agree with you, and is persistant about it? Was Copericus a crank in his day?
Eric, the answers to all your questions are at your fingertips.
On the top bar of the page is the crank HOWTO, and “about denialism”, both of which describe what we’re about.
It should explain the difference between a criminal conspiracy (which is quite common) and a conspiracy theory – which requires a very different mode of thought. And the difference between a crank and a real paradigm shifter like Copernicus and Galileo – they had data on their side for instance.
Why the rant against Cockburn? A crank is someone who refuses to engage in debate. A crank is someone who
If you ignore Cockburn maybe he will go away.
It is devoutly to be wished. Sadly, as Monbiot indicates, he is one of the most famous left-wing journalists around. This is a problem in many respects, notably because he carries water for numerous reactionary causes in the guise of unflinching left-wing reportage.
I hope he’s finally overstepped himself, and will be ignored from now on in left-wing circles. And then it would be great if the magazine that published him, The Nation would go the same way among the left-liberal crowd.
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