Robert Manne as an intellectual

By August 10, 2012Climate Change, Other, Society

Robert Manne is a professor of political science at La Trobe University and, according to The Monthly, has twice been voted as Australia’s leading public intellectual. I’ ve not met him, but many years ago, when he was editor of Quadrant, he published an essay of mine about higher education. He writes well, and often — big pieces, too.

The most recent appears in the current edition of The Monthly, and it made me revisit a question I asked myself when I read another big piece of his in Quarterly Essay, a few issues ago (#43 ‘Bad News’, about the Murdoch Press). Just what is an intellectual, anyway? There are various definitions, but they centre on the life of the mind, the use of rational enquiry, holding to a line of thought however unpopular it is to the rulers of the day, and so on. Robert Manne’s skewering of The Australian in his QE was well researched, but it was so coloured by adjectives and adverbs that I felt I was reading a work of the heart, not one of the mind.

His long essay in The Monthly has fewer adjectives and adverbs, but it has the same fault: Robert Manne has a point of view, and he advances the point of view without, in my opinion, considering the alternatives and disposing of them with good arguments. His point of view is that ‘climate change’ is real, caused by humanity, and potentially catastrophic. Those who don’t think so are ‘denialists’, akin to those who deny the reality of the Holocaust that exterminated millions of Jewish people during Hitler’s regime in Germany.

His article is entitled ‘A Dark Victory. How vested interests defeated climate science’, and I read it with growing head-shaking. Like the QE piece on The Australian, this is a polemic, not the work of an intellectual. It is mostly about the debate on global warming in the United States, and it takes for granted a great deal about which any reasonable person could expect a discussion of possibilities. I think the silliest is his notion that there is  some kind of well-funded denialist machine that has worked to turn the American (and by extension, the Australian) people away from the truth about global warming. I have never encountered it in my own life, and can see no evidence of it in the blogosphere or in print.

He passes over the possibility that the reason global warming has lost its power to worry people is that the predicted awful things have not occurred. We were promised more and more droughts, and got floods instead. Temperatures that rose in sympathy with increasing carbon dioxide in the 1980s and 1990s have ceased to do so. We may be entering a new cool period because of sunspot activity. But Manne never mentions the data (about which I have old-fashioned empirical concerns, the subject of a coming post). He pictures ‘science’ as overwhelmingly on the side of the orthodoxy, but it is not. Science doesn’t work like that. The orthodoxy is a political position, not a scientific one, and statements by the executive of the Australian Academy of Science (not by the Fellows, who have never been asked to comment) is political, not scientific.

And he paints a picture of the debate which is one-sided to an astonishing degree for someone who is seen as Australia’s leading ‘public intellectual’. He takes Michael Mann’s recent chest-beating defence of himself as truth, and accepts that Mann’s hockey-stick graph still means something. On Robert Manne’s account, the denialist machine seems to have set up Anthony Watts’s website, though he gives no evidence. Steve McIntyre, who set up another (Climate Audit) in order to consider the evidence not being referred to by the orthodox, is referred to as ‘one of the most remorseless denialists’. James Hansen, perhaps the father of the AGW scare, appears as Manne’s hero. I would have to say that if Hansen were working for the Australian Government (of either party) he would have been fired years ago. I see him as a good example of the ‘loose cannon on the deck’.

The great puzzle is that Manne seems unable to grasp that AGW is the orthodoxy, even in the United States. For more than twenty years now the belief has grown that we have to do something about greenhouse gas emissions, and at a global level. That belief is embedded in our public service, our universities, and our political parties. It is a belief that is based on a particular take on radiative physics, which is that carbon dioxide increases will, other things being equal, increase the temperature of the globe. In point of theory, a doubling of carbon dioxide will lead to an increase in temperature of 1.1 degrees Celsius, other things being equal. Because the increase is logarithmic, not linear, it takes some time to effect such a change (we have moved from perhaps 280 parts per million, in say 1780, to 394 ppm today, and most of that warming has already occurred. I don’t know anyone who takes part in a serious way in discussions of  ‘climate change’ who would dispute that. But everything else is conjecture, and argument about it continues to occur. Not to take that into consideration seems to me an extraordinary lapse on the part of an intellectual of any kind, public or private.

Finally, the role of the intellectual in the past has been to stand up for an idea, and pursue it with rigour, despite its unpopularity with the powers that be. But Robert Manne is using his intellect not simply to support the orthodoxy, but to do so in the most uncritical way. Do we now need to redefine what an intellectual is?


Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Beth Cooper says:

    Hi Don, a coupla comments about Robert Manne as an intellectual. When I studied History with Prof Blainey and other professional historians at Melbourne University in the late 1970’s, yer couldn’t get away with unsubstantated argument, evidence and citation were required. Robert Manne, I note, sees no such need ter back up his passionate denouncements of those who do not share his politics or belief in AGW, which he uncritically calls ‘climate change.’ He cites no evidence fer his claims that sceptics,’deniers,’ are in the pay of big oil.

    Manne also seems to be missing the critical curiosity of a true intellectual. He appears not to have visited sites like Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit, where the hockey stick data and statistical methodology were closely analysed and has not offered a critical appraisal of the cronyism, gatekeeping and FOI evasion revealed in th CRU emails.

    I would think he’d want to examine primary evidence of main players’ key communications on issues about the science and the controversy, but seems not.
    I bet he hasn’t read Nassim Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ either. If he had, he might demonstrate jest a little socratic humility and awareness of the pitfalls of confirmation bias.

    • DonAitkin says:

      Beth, I enjoy your contributions to Judy Curry’s website, so thank you for visiting here. I am preparing a post on what you might call ‘attitude’ — why people take a position but don’t really examine why they have done it, or inspect the position to see whether or not it needs some variation.

      I think that the agnostic position is the best one, and not only because it is mine. If you are a data-watcher and a hypothesis-tester you can always vary your position according to the most recent evidence. Because I have done that I have moved into being a ‘tepid lukewarmer’ about AGW. I accept the radiative physics, but not yet the strong positive climate sensitivity that AR4 put forward. My guess is that we have at least a decade to find out a lot more about climate, and real likelihood of Thermagedden.

  • Tim Florin says:


  • steve says:

    here is another take on Mr. Manne’s intellect

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