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Denying the Future

By James Taranto
February 9, 2007

The Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman starts off a column about global warming on a loopy note:

On the day that the latest report on global warming was released, I went out and bought a light bulb. OK, an environmentally friendly, compact fluorescent light bulb.

Wow, Ellen, thanks for sharing! But a few paragraphs later she tries to make a serious point and ends up making a serious moral and intellectual error:

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

No, Ellen. Let's not "just say" it. Before we make a truly invidious comparison, let's think a bit, shall we?

On our shelf sits a book called "The House That Hitler Built." It is a 380-page study of Nazi Germany, written by Stephen H. Roberts, a professor of modern history at the University of Sydney. Roberts spent 16 months in Germany and neighboring countries between 1935 and 1937. "My main aim," he explains in the preface, "was to sum up the New Germany without any prejudice (except that my general approach was that of a democratic individualist)."

The substance of the book is alarming, although the tone is calm and detached--so much so that it is eerie to read with the knowledge of what happened in the years after October 1937, when it was published. One 10-page chapter is devoted to "The Present Place of the Jews." At the time Roberts wrote, the persecution of Jewish Germans was well under way:

At present, the German Jew has no civil rights. He is not a citizen; he cannot vote or attend any political meeting; he has no liberty of speech and cannot defend himself in print; he cannot become a civil servant or a judge; he cannot be a writer or a publisher or a journalist; he cannot speak over the radio; he cannot become a screen actor or an actor before Aryan audiences; he cannot teach in any educational institution; he cannot enter the service of the railway, the Reichsbank, and many other banks; he cannot exhibit paintings or give concerts; he cannot work in any public hospital; he cannot enter the Labour Front or any of the professional organizations, although membership of many callings is restricted to members of these groups; he cannot even sell books or antiques. . . . In addition to these, there are many other restrictions applying in certain localities. The upshot of them all is that the Jew is deprived of all opportunity for advancement and is lucky if he contrives to scrape a bare living unmolested by Black Guards or Gestapo. It is a campaign of annihilation--a pogrom of the crudest form, supported by every State instrument.

When Roberts published his book, Kristallnacht was more than a year away; the ghettoes and death camps were further still in the future. Roberts described what he witnessed as "a campaign of annihilation," but he did not foretell the multiplication of its brutality in the ensuing years. Had he somehow managed to do so, he would be a prophet today, but he might well have looked like a crank at the time.

Which brings us back to Ellen Goodman. Imagine if someone in 1937 had foreknowledge of the Holocaust and began sounding the alarms, describing in detail what was going to happen just a few years later. Most people probably wouldn't believe him. They would be, to use Goodman's phrase, denying the future. But would they be "on par" with people who deny the Holocaust after it has happened?

That seems a stretch. There's an enormous difference between doubting an outlandish prediction (even one that comes true) and denying the grotesque facts of history. Because we are ignorant of the future, we can innocently misjudge it. Holocaust deniers are neither ignorant nor innocent (though extremely ignorant people may innocently accept their claims). They are falsifying history for evil purposes.

This columnist is skeptical of global warming. We don't have enough scientific knowledge to have anything like an authoritative opinion--but neither does Ellen Goodman, who bases her entire argument on an appeal to authority, namely the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We lack the time, the inclination and possibly the intellect to delve deeply into the science. No doubt the same is true of Goodman.

Our skepticism rests largely on intuition. The global-warmists speak with a certainty that is more reminiscent of religious zeal than scientific inquiry. Their demands to cast out all doubt seem antithetical to science, which is founded on doubt. The theory of global warming fits too conveniently with their pre-existing political ideologies. (Granted, we too are vulnerable to that last criticism.)

Above all, we can't stand to be bullied. And what is it but an act of bullying to deny that there is any room for honest disagreement, to insist that those of us who are unpersuaded are the equivalent of Holocaust deniers, that we are not merely mistaken but evil?

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