Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Inconvenient Truth about "An Inconvenient Truth"

Although it has not yet been released in major theaters, Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," is already causing a firestorm. For example, film critic Roger Ebert has waxed melodramatic in his praise for it. For those just awaking from a coma, Gore claims that global warming is real and apocalyptic. He, of course, has been claiming this for many years, and argued for it in his book, Earth in the Balance (which I reviewed for The Spiritual Counterfeits Journal years ago). I was skeptical of global warming then and I am now, although I don't claim any expertise on the matter. However, I recommend reading the chapter on this subject in Tom Bethell’s excellent book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

My point about Gore's movie is not necessarily that his thesis is wrong (although I strongly suspect it is). Rather, my concern is that no movie should be viewed as a strong argument for any scientific or philosophical or religious claim. Movies may suggest ideas or stir emotions or put us to sleep or produce any number of other effects, but they cannot give sustained intellectual arguments concerning complex issues. This is because they trade in images and sounds, not in textual argumentation; that is, they cannot sustain the careful exposition of ideas because of their very nature. (“The medium is the message,” once again.) They may contain truth, but the format in which the truth is presented is not adequate for its investigation or verification. This is especially so in an age when images are so easily manipulated through computer technology. Seeing is not believing. Thus, knowledge (justified true belief) is lacking.

Seeing Al Gore and a raft of hand-picked scientists cry, "Doom," may have a profound emotional effect. The ethos of scientific (or pundocratic) presence exudes from smart-looking faces. Some pathos is sure to come through as well, as is the case in all Chicken Little pronouncements. What is decidedly missing is good-old logos: the actual evidence and arguments presented in a way that is amenable to critical thought.

So, while "An Inconvenient Truth" will fan the flames of concern about global warming, by itself, it will do little if anything to contribute to the real debate over this issue. And that is an “inconvenient truth” that very few people are likely to notice.

27 comments:

Jonathan Erdman said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I agree with the general direction and point of your post. However, if you don't mind, I would like to meddle with some of the details!

The first issue I have is with the sharp contrast you seem to be drawing between communicating with arguments (through propositions) and communicating with the arts (through images, sounds, etc.). Isn't it possible to combine both forms in one medium? To communicate an argument in a propositional way, while also appealing to the aesthetic side?

Secondly, I question your assumption that knowledge consists only in Justified True Belief (JTB). Specifically, I question the "justification" aspect of the equation. I follow closely in Plantinga's footsteps on this issue and only offer a few, brief thoughts that I am sure you are familiar with: Is our reliance upon memory always something that is justified in the JTB formula? It seems as though we rely on our memory on a regular basis even though we rarely, if ever, take the time to justify it on the basis of a finely tuned argument. Such arguments for the reliance of memory may exist, but there are few who take the time to follow through and justify their reliance on memory. If we do not validate all of our reliances upon memory in order to justify do they no longer count as "knowledge"? It would seem as though they would not if we stick with the JTB formula.

On a more spiritual note, it seems as though we all have a knowledge of God that is not based upon argumentation. Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis. If God created us to know him in an immediate and basic way (apart from "justification") it would seem wise to count this as "knowledge" even if it doesn't fit the JTB equation.

These are a few minor points. I think your criticisms in your post are well taken in light of a culture that seems more interested in taking their beliefs from the artistic mediums and disinterested in critical thinking via argumentation....but being a post-modern child I also think that the arts communicate truth with great power, in certain instances. For example, watching the scene of Aslan's death and resurrection in the recent Chronicles of Narnia movie moved me in a way that propositions never have....

Note For those unfamiliar interested on a basic intro. to Plantinga I recommend the following summary of mine (done under my alias "Spiderman&Co.":
http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?t=62661
(This link discusses Plantinga in relation to JTB and Internalism)

Bill said...

So should documentary movies, or movies like Al Gore's - since it's not a textbook documentary - not be made then? Since we can't do a particular topic justice, should we just give up? Should we only make movies simply to entertain, or should some movies try both to educate us (as best they can) and entertain us?

Bill said...

And slightly off subject, but even if you disagree with Gore’s thesis in the film (I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t say), I give Gore credit for bringing more attention to the environment – and that’s an issue that has been ignored for too long by both Democrats and Republicans and really the entire first world. Regardless of how we feel about the science, common sense should tell us that we need to do a better job treating the Earth with respect and making sure our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t inherit a plant that looks like the floor of a New York taxi cab on New Years Eve. And my guess is that’s what Gore’s motivation is, too.

Douglas Groothuis said...

I'm not against documentaries per se, only giving them too much intellectual credit.

Tim said...

Jonathan,

A few quick points. First, you write:

It seems as though we rely on our memory on a regular basis even though we rarely, if ever, take the time to justify it on the basis of a finely tuned argument. Such arguments for the reliance of memory may exist, but there are few who take the time to follow through and justify their reliance on memory.

This reflects a misunderstanding the concept of justification invoked in a JTB analysis of knowledge. That analysis doesn't require that the knower be self-consciously rehearsing reasons; it requires that the individual have the reasons. The difference between having reasons and self-consciously accessing them, much less giving them in discursive form, is well established in the epistemological literature.

You also write:

... it seems as though we all have a knowledge of God that is not based upon argumentation. Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis.

So some, including John Calvin and Alvin Plantinga, have claimed. To others – and I count myself among this latter group – this does not seem obvious at all. For those of us who sincerely believe in God but do not, to the best of our ability to introspect, have a sensus divinitatis, it is difficult to know what to make of such claims. If they can be made plausible to us (much less to non-believers), this will, it seems, be possible only on the basis of the invocation of reasons in the old-fashioned sense. So the old internalist notion of justification turns out not to be dispensable after all.

Andrew said...

I'm going to assume that you wrote carefully. And given that you are throwing out some tasty bait, I'll bite. Let's put Gore aside, given that neither of us has seen the movie.

You seem to be suggesting that the tools or methods to properly regard any film (documentary specifically here, but you are making claims about the medium itself) are the following:

1) No movie should be viewed as a strong argument for any scientific or philosophical or religious claim.
2) Movies may suggest ideas or stir emotions or put us to sleep or produce any number of other effects, but they cannot give sustained intellectual arguments concerning complex issues.
3) [Movies] trade in images and sounds, not in textual argumentation; that is, they cannot sustain the careful exposition of ideas because of their very nature. (“The medium is the message,” once again.)
4) [Movies] may contain truth, but the format in which the truth is presented is not adequate for its investigation or verification.
5) This is especially so in an age when images are so easily manipulated through computer technology. Seeing is not believing. Thus, knowledge (justified true belief) is lacking.
6) What is decidedly missing is good-old logos: the actual evidence and arguments presented in a way that is amenable to critical thought.


Am I regarding your ideas correctly?

If so, how would you regard the following movie?

A man sits facing the camera at a lectern. He looks directly into the lens, addressing the audience through the "4th wall." He recites (without the aid of teleprompter or text) Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He pauses at approriate moments, as if to allow for thought or notes, and recites with conviction and clarity.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Andrew:

1. Such a movie would never be made because it doesn't trade on what movies are: visually oriented media. Hearing and seeing something read does not play to the uniqueness of the medium.

2. Hearing philosophy is not the same as reading it. Reading allows for more analysis and reflection. So the one is not translatable into the other.

Andrew said...

1. Such a movie would never be made because it doesn't trade on what movies are: visually oriented media. Hearing and seeing something read does not play to the uniqueness of the medium.
The film I describe falls well within the scope of the uniqueness of the medium. While not up to Hollywood standards, there are movies of this sort.

2. Hearing philosophy is not the same as reading it. Reading allows for more analysis and reflection. So the one is not translatable into the other.
Agreed. I was trying to make a point. Analysis and reflection require space and time. There are movies that exist that allow (even require) this, sometimes they require multiple viewings, and great effort (much like the best reading).

Adam said...

I wonder if you would make the same argument about literature (novels, short stories, poems, etc.) that you make about movies?

A couple of points:

1. Though the visual element is not as explicit, there is no doubt that, say, well-written novels or poems can induce powerful (mental) images in the reader. In fact, there was a whole school of modernist poetry called "Imagism" that devoted itself to precisely this task. (Recall Ezra Pound's famous "imagistic" poem, "In a Station of the Metro": "The Apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.")

2. It is also doubtful whether novels or poems can, as you put it, "sustain the careful exposition of ideas" that is (apparently) the conditio sine qua non of argumentative discourse. Granted, some novels do this better than others. Dostoyevsky, for instance, is clearly trying to make philosophical points in many of his novels. But reading The Brothers Karamazov is much different from, say, reading Plantinga (and much more beneficial, I would add). And it seems foolish to think that reading a "philosophical/propositional paraphrase" of The Grand Inquisitor chapter (for example) would be the same as reading the text of the novel itself.

3. In any case, it seems relatively clear that novels and poems--even when they tend toward the philosophical--do not present "arguments" as philosophers usually understand that word. Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, shows us the inhumanity and horror of slavery. Les Miserables shows us what can happen when someone truly learns to love and forgive. Don Quixote shows us what happens when an otherwise ordinary man becomes possessed by a single, overwhelming passion.

But in none of these cases do we have anything like an "argument" with identifiable premises and a conclusion--one that could then be subjected to logical scrutiny in terms of validity, soundness, etc. But, of course, that's to be expected. After all, literature doesn't trade in logical arguments; it works in a different medium.


But suppose we wanted to argue that narrative (and non-narrative) literature falls closer to the camp of the "good-old logos" than movies. I wonder what other criteria we might use to distinguish the two? In what sense could we say that novels and poems should be given "intellectual credit" while movies should not? What does literature have that makes it a suitable medium for the "careful exposition of ideas" that is necessarily unavailable to movies?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Adam:

I am not arguing that nonfiction exposition is the only thing that matters in the world, but that it is necessary for wise belief formation. We also are wise to cultivate the moral imagination through reading literature. However, literature, while it invokes images, is not itself imagic (if that is a word), but invokes images through words. No small distinction, that.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Tim McGrew said..
This reflects a misunderstanding the concept of justification invoked in a JTB analysis of knowledge. That analysis doesn't require that the knower be self-consciously rehearsing reasons; it requires that the individual have the reasons. The difference between having reasons and self-consciously accessing them, much less giving them in discursive form, is well established in the epistemological literature.

It may be wise for me to quit and just bow out of the conversation...but that's just not good for blogging or conversation, in general! And, who knows, maybe Prof. McGrew will forget that he left a comment here and I will get off scot-free with my rebuttle!

I would concure with the distinction Prof. McGrew makes. However, I cannot see how it evades the problem I mentioned for the JTBer. In the instance of memory we have a case where it seems difficult to conceive of a sort-of "universal" justification for all memories. I say this for the following reasons:
1 - all memories are of unique instances and situations, etc.
2 - all memories are held with varying degrees of strength. (Some memories are "stronger" or "better" than others - more vivid.)
3 - each memory will have a unique place in one's noetic structure(the belief structure).

Given the above it seems quite necessary, given the commitments of the Traditional JTB formula, to justify each memory. We cannot simply develop a justification for all past memories and then carry this forward into the future and apply it to all memories in the future. The reasons for this seem fairly obvious: what if you justify your memory based on the past and then five seconds later you suffer some sort of amnesia and your ability to remember is severly impaired? In this instance the JTBer would have a faulty and unreliable memory even though he or she just finished justifying it! This is why I believe Prof. McGrew's distinction does not really solve the issue, if I understand his objection correctly: Would not justification have to be an ongoing process to handle the new instances of memory and how they fit in one's noetic structure? Even if the reasons are not in discoursive form the reasons must exist. In the absence of reasons I cannot see how we have the "justification" portion of our JTB formula, and I fail to see how we can legitimately develop a blanket or universal justification for all future memories such that we can rely on each memory without reflection.

So, the JTB formula still must justify why it can take for granted and utilize each memory recall without any reason. This seems to me to be a serious problem for a JTBer. How can they rely on the thousands of memories they utilize each and every day without justifying them in some way? Can they legitimately say that they went through a justification process a few years back and that this should cover it? For me it seems more natural to just admit that we use memory in a properly basic way and we should not hassle with justification of our memories in the internalist sense.

Tim said...

Jonathan,

No such luck -- the marauding internalist sees all! ;)

You write:

... it seems quite necessary, given the commitments of the Traditional JTB formula, to justify each memory.

Here you are saddling the internalist with a job that many internalists repudiate by asking him to justify each memory, as if justifying were an act that the internalist has undertaken to perform. This misses the point. The internalist who accepts a TJB defintion of knowledge holds that knowledge comprises beliefs that are, inter alia, justified -- but this means simply that they have a certain epistemic standing, not that someone has rehearsed an argument in their favor. There are a few internalists who accept the stricter requirement that this justification be itself something of which the knower is directly aware. But that is a requirement repudiated by many internalists, and it isn’t fair to saddle all of them with it as if it were an intrinsic component of all forms of internalism.

If you’re just dying to see a fuller exposition of the position I take on this, you can look up “Level Connections in Epistemology” American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997): 85-94.

Ed Darrell said...

Tom Bethell is very much a science hack. Recommending his books on environmental or other science issues is rather like recommending the Soviet official book on Christianity as a good analysis of our faith. Maybe worse: It's like the Tobacco Institute's book on cardiac health.

Seriously.

The only question about global warming is how much influence we can have in ameliorating its deleterious effects, though there does seem to be a wealth of data indicating that we don't have as much time to act as we thought even five years ago.

You're going to regard this as snarky, but I'd really like to know: Have you ever studied science? Do you have a regular source of good science information that you consult?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Ed:

Ad hominem, guilt by association, and poisening the well is all you offered about Tom Bethell.

Ed Darrell said...

Labeling an argument doesn't make it false. Bethell's anti-science rants have been infamous in science circles for years.

Deft dancing around the question. Is there a Latin name for the argument of "hoping no one notices as the question is not answered at all?

As I noted before, and you took offense at, there seems to be a low level of science sophistication here. Al Gore, though not a scientist, has been prescient on science issues for years, opposing (successfully) the Reagan administration's efforts to kill ARPANET and the nascent web, advocating a quick track to organ transplant pharamaceuticals and serious registries to match donor organs with those who need them. He has a grand track record in Christian applications of science.

You offer Tom Bethell, who to the best of my knowledge has no such track record, and suggest Bethell the better thinker on the topic.

Gore discovered what Darwin found: God's creation is quite remarkable, and irrefutable in person. Gore took it a step further, and filmed the stuff. Nature makes powerful arguments against fouling it. I can't imagine the oil company executive so far gone that the movie won't produce twinges of guilt.

In the end, the movie makes a powerful statement that can't be denied on the basis of science, or on other factual grounds. Facts are stubborn things, they say.

nancy said...

Ed - are you going on record as saying that everything that is stated in the movie is factually correct and soberly stated with no emotion enhancing exageration.

Last time I checked, plastic medical devices are rather essential for organ transplants. Hmmmm I wonder where plastics come from and who developed them?

Ed Darrell said...

Nancy,

No, not at all. I'm saying that Gore is generally correct, and the emotion is appropriate. Good decisions are impossible without an emotional component (see D'Amasio's work). What is it you claim is exaggerated? What is the evidence?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Ed:

I read and reviewed Gore's book years ago and found in unconvincing. I read Bethell and found it convincing. I'm no ignoramus on science or the philosophy of science. I had a seminar on the latter in graduate school and have written on it in several places.

Gore tends to grandstand and make exagerated claims, "I invented the internet" and so on. He is also something of a chameleon, as his political career shows.

Sir Fab said...

Dear Professor Groothuis:
I have yet to see "An Inconvenient Truth" (but plan to do so soon) so I cannot and will not argue for or against its merits. Still, your negative judgment on something you have not taken the time to see seems arbitrary, because--at best--it must rely on second-hand opinions that may be ultimately as flawed and partisan as you accuse the film of being itself (your bias is clear when you say that "Seeing Al Gore, and a raft of hand-picked scientists cry "Doom," may have a profound emotional effect.")
Next, your main contention, that "movies should not be used to make a strong argument for any scientific or philosophical or religious claim," is worth discussing. While cinema is not a substitute for deep inquiry, it can certainly be a catalyst for it. Just like books, newspaper articles, I agree that no two-hour film can give, as you put it, "sustained intellectual arguments concerning complex issues." Additionally, a film may fail to adequately present both sides of the issues. Of course, the same is true of most fora in our society where issues are debated, as is the case of talk radio or the cable TV "pretend" debate programs where the loudest voice comes out on top. In this context, movies like An Inconvenient Truth (and Syriana, and Good Night And Good Luck, just to mention a few recent ones) may be the best chance that certain issues have to be brought to the attention of an increasingly distracted and apathetic public. Compared with the quick fire succession of trite talking points that are hurled at us by TV and radio parrots (no disrespect meant to actual parrots,) a two-hour long, cohesive presentation of any important topic may be the best we can hope for.
One final comment: we all know that pictures are worth a thousand words. Of course, pictures--like words--can be used to convey a false and/or biased view of reality, but it is hard to deny the impact that "now and then" pictures of Mt. Kilimanjaro or Patagonia can have on those who have yet to pay attention. If those images lead viewers to wonder what is happening to our planet, and whether humans are in great or small measure responsible for it, more quickly than scientific tomes do, we should be grateful. Those who wish to do so, can then pursue their investigation beyond the movie, CNN, and Fox News. They can choose to attend public debates, read extensively on the subject, and form their own opinion. If documentaries and films about our environment, biased as they may be, are the spark that leads some people to further explore topics that are more infinitely more relevant to our future than, say, gay marriages, we should welcome them, even with all justifiable reservations.

Ed Darrell said...

Gore never claimed to invent the internet, and that sort of trivializing of serious issues is the sort of thing that I find disconcerting on this blog. Bethell is equally blithe about skating across the facts of science. There was a thread here once on "truthiness." It might be good to revisit it.

(Gore went to bat to preserve ARPANET, which was the precursor to the internet, when the Republican long knives went after it. I had noted that accurately in my previous post -- one could look it up. While Gore has mentioned, accurately, his role in saving this medium, he never claimed to have invented the technology or the idea.)

One who claims Gore tends to "grandstand" has never met the man nor worked with him, I presume. He's a modest man, extremely bright and well-informed. He's one of those notable legislators who worries more about getting the right thing done than getting credit for it -- as I witnessed when he graciously gave Orrin Hatch the privilege of having the organ transplant legislation carry Hatch's name, but Gore's better text. Gore a "chameleon?" No, not to anyone who paid attention to his first campaigns for the U.S. House, or his Senate campaign against Victor Ashe.

This is a philosophy blog, yes -- but can we work for historical accuracy, too?

Bethell is notoriously outside of science on most of the issues he writes about -- evolution (http://evolutionblog.blogspot.com/2005/12/fisking-bethell.html), meteorology, and HIV, where he flirts with backing South African President Mbeki's now-abandoned, non-scientific diatribe against medical care. Bethell began his journalistic life in the U.S. working on what would become Oliver Stone's view of the Kennedy assassination. His topics have changed over the years, but the acccuracy of the views he espouses have not.

Is there a science issue upon which Bethell has been right over the years? I can't think of one, and even if you can find a few, his record does not rise to the level of "trustworthy" on science issues.

nancy said...

Ed - could you fill me in on the details about Al Gore's graduate school experience in law and theology? Also, what is the history and facts about Al Gore's vote for Dessert Storm?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Ed:

Can you please post your ideas without the needless insults?

Doug Groothuis

Ed Darrell said...

Dr. Groothuis,

Can you get over the feeling that any correction on any point is an insult? If one regards a correction on the facts as an insult, there's little I can do at my end.

Journalism is a tough business. As Joseph Pulitzer famously noted, "Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!"

Nancy: I didn't know Gore in graduate school, and can't provide details. If your point is that deciding one career path is not the right one is some sort of chameleon act, state the case. I don't find that argument persuasive.

Al Gore's work in Congress produced legislation to protect senior citizens from worthless (but expensive) insurance, to require infant formula to be nutritious rather than fatal or brain-damaging, to compensate Americans injured by government carelessness with nuclear radiation, to promote the development of the drugs that make organ transplants normal procedures, and to create organ donor procedures to get available organs to people who need them.

If you have a bone to pick with Gore, start with that record of legislation, please. Of course, when people wish to belittle the work of a good man, they don't mention the good stuff. Worse, in Gore's case, he usually gets slapped with total fictions.

Serious discussion deserves more care, I think. Your mileage may differ, but it shouldn't.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Fab:

Yes, a movie may be a better catylst than anything on TV. However, a picture may not be worth a thousand words, because pictures cannot clearly communicate propositions, even something as simple as "The cat is on the mat." Pictures need a context and an explanation in order to communicate clearly (especially moving images), and, in our image-soaked society, typically receive neither. Thus, people are manipulated through images more than informed through arguments.

Ed Darrell said...

According to Pharyngula: Friday, at 3:15 ET, on NPR's Science Friday…it's Mooney vs. Bethell. Bethell doesn't stand a chance.

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/06/another_musthear_matchup.php

Mooney comments here: http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2006/06/science_friday_september_tour.php

If your local NPR station carries Science Friday, you may want to listen in.

Douglas Groothuis said...

If that's Chris Mooney, who wrote The Republican War Against Science, I wouldn't be so sure. I debated him on the radio and got only cliches from him on intelligent design. He gave no arguments at all and never responded to mine.

nancy said...

Ed - my comments were responses to your statements. You state that Gore is "extremely bright." Perhaps his poor academic record and inability to finish law or divinity school could be attributed to youthful foolishness, not intellectual inaptitude:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A37397-2000Mar18

As to your statement that "He's one of those notable legislators who worries more about getting the right thing done than getting credit for it " - it seems that at times his soul may be for sale for the right price.

http://nationalreview.com
/robbins/robbins093002.asp (skip to the paragraph that begins “Gore hinges his credibility…”

No, I have not viewed the movie yet. At some time I'm sure that I will and expect that the category of "generally correct" will likely be an exaggeration.

If one is making grand claims about the earth and it's destiny, then he or she better be a meticulous fact finder and not just "generally correct." I find that those who admit the limits of the research and use restraint in not making claims beyond what can be proved are far more believable.

Hmmm...where is the evidence that we should expect a steady-state constant temperature for all eternity?