On Climate Change and Dumbology

My thanks to Bhante Brahmali who recommended that I read The Australian, apparently to moderate my excessively liberal views. I warned him that it was likely to have the opposite effect than desired, and alas I was proven correct.

Perusing our national broadsheet in the plane back from my recent trip to Perth (on which more when I get some time), I came across two articles on climate change, both skeptical (of course). One was so silly I immediately consigned it to the rubbish bin of my unconscious, in fear that it would infect my brain.

The other, in wonderfully serious tone, really looked as if it was making a serious ‘argument’. Global temperatures hit their peak in 1997, it said, and this is a fact of deep concern for proponents of the global warming ‘theory’. I was struck with existential doubt: perhaps my advocacy for, you know, using less and helping the environment, had been misguided all along!

In the real world, I was struck with an existential anxiety, a sort of fear mixed with pity mixed with horror, at the stupidity of the dialogue. Is it not completely obvious that if you compare things with the extreme peak, they will be less? How can it be that anyone takes this seriously? Fortunately, as a master of the erudite and complex research tools Google and Wikipedia, I accomplished a sophisticated study of the data (known among rocket scientists as a ‘google search’) and came up with the following graph:

The temperatures peaked in 97/98, but the temperatures overall in the last decade have been near this peak, making the decade clearly the warmest on record.

Why is it that such elementary knowledge is beyond us? A recent study has made a strong case that people who hold conservative social values are less intelligent and more fearful. (And, by the way, congratulations to the authors for increasing global intelligence by making their work freely available.) Cognitive ability is linked with compassion, allowing one to empathize and imagine the suffering of others.

This has been covered in the Daily Mail, which as Charlie Brooker points out, is a wonderful piece of irony.

George Monbiot‘s more sober analysis raises the important point that liberals have been too polite in allowing the ultra-conservative viewpoint to steamroller reason. Did I hear someone say, ‘Bhikkhuni ordination will never be accepted by any Theravadin monks!’ Sometimes reason has to stand up for itself.

14 thoughts on “On Climate Change and Dumbology

  1. Hi Bhante,

    I totally agree with you regarding climate change, but the new study – and the uses to which it’s being put by some on the left – concern me. Measuring ‘intelligence’ has always been a deeply problematic enterprise and one bound up with eugenics, racism, anti-immigration, and general xenophobia – Stephen Jay Gould has a great book on this, ‘The Mismeasure of Man.’

    Also, I wonder whether telling people that they’re less intelligent than you, a la Monbiot, is a good strategy if one’s aim is to try to get them to change their views, or whether it will in fact further entrench their positions. What Monbiot seems to be calling for is the kind of stridency that I’d associate with people like Dawkins or Hitchens (to draw an analogy to a different debate); rather, the problem to my way of thinking lies not in the fact that ‘the Left’ is too polite, but that the global media is mainly captive to centre-right and ultra-right interests, and that what is represented as ‘the Left’ (eg the various Western Labor parties, the Democrats, etc) are actually centre right, who will therefore always be at a disadvantage in debate with the Right given that they are only a slightly watered-down version of what they are contesting.

    On a more abstract note, I wonder about Buddhists accepting unquestioningly the paradigm of ‘reason’ as ultimate arbiter – although obviously in cases like this there is a position which is illogical and needs to be exposed as such, in the bigger picture (and I’m thinking here of works like McMahan’s ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’) a paradigm in which ‘reason’ is appealed to as the ultimate source of value and truth (emerging from the European Enlightenment) both inevitably waters down Buddhism, fails to recognise or question the ideological nature of scientific materialism, and denies aspects of Buddhism that many find central to their belief (obviously, rebirth and kamma being the most central).

    With metta,


    • Hi Rowan,

      Intelligence is indeed a slippery beast. But we can’t escape the fact that there are differences in how people think, reason, and so on, and even failed attempts to clarify these differences teach us something through their failures. The evidence may be unclear or subject to differing interpretations – and that’s what reasoned debate is all about.

      It’s not as if there is a huge monolithic progressive movement leaping on this study. As Monbiot pointed out in his article, hardly anyone except he and Brooker had actually even drawn attention to it. Surely we should be informed as to these things, even if we may differ as to how they are to be understood.

      Also, I wonder whether telling people that they’re less intelligent than you, a la Monbiot, is a good strategy if one’s aim is to try to get them to change their views, or whether it will in fact further entrench their positions.

      Fair enough, you’re probably right. It was a hasty post, which I had doubts about after I published it.

      But still, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of what Monbiot and myself are saying. Sure, Monbiot uses colorful language, but his basic message is that:

      the once-progressive major parties… triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by … “terminal niceness”. They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation.

      I find it hard to fault this, or to doubt that a more coherent message to support compassionate values would be a good thing. And it seems to be more or less what you are saying, too. My message, such as it was, was simply that progressive voices should not be cowed by the adamantine certainty of fundamentalism. Speak! Question! Do not accept blithe platitudes that enshrine injustice!

      When I read Monbiot’s article, was struck by the parallels with my own experience in dealing with bhikkhuni ordination. As I (and others) have lamented for many years, all of the substantial efforts that have gone into addressing the concerns of the conservatives – mountains of research into Buddhist history, Vinaya, and so on – is simply ignored. The lack of any intelligent response from the conservatives is not merely an artifact of the public debate, it is just as much a reality in private as well. I would welcome a reasoned response, but there simply isn’t any.

      Am I going to persuade the conservatives by pointing this out? No, but I’m not going to persuade them anyway. What I do hope to do is to encourage compassionate voices to have some more confidence and stick up for what is right. The real problem is that, in Buddhism, the majority really is silent. Compassion is crushed by fear, and reason is trampled by authority.

      I wonder about Buddhists accepting unquestioningly the paradigm of ‘reason’ as ultimate arbiter

      I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to here. If to me, then that’s not what I believe. Reason has its uses, and its limitations. I used to believe that reason could sort everything out, but life disabused me of that pleasant notion. There comes a time when we have to trust. If you want to turn it into a saying: Intelligence knows the use of reason, while wisdom knows its limits.

      In certain cases, it is true, reason is relied on excessively, as if we can think our way to the truth. While this is the case in certain rather limited intellectual Buddhist or quasi-Buddhist circles, far more common is the simple failure to exercise reason, which results in the curious distortion field that imagines irrationality to be wisdom.

      Be careful with academic studies of Buddhist modernism. While I haven’t read the book you refer to, in general academics respond to the world they know, the world of reason. There is a strong tendency to see Buddhism as determined by modernist ideas. But the Buddhism that’s found in books is not the Buddhism lived on the street. While modernist ideas are important, it is also true to say that much of how Buddhism is actually practiced is relatively untouched by modernism. Much of the time, modernism is simply a veneer, a stated ideology, which in practice is pretty thin. Throughout Buddhist cultures we still see the majority of people for whom their experience of Buddhism is chanting texts they don’t understand, doing magic, getting excited by ‘orbs’ and the like, blessing amulets, uncritical worship of charismatic leaders, and so on.

      I wonder whether we have a ‘reason exhaustion’. Studies of willpower tend to show that exerting will for a period temporarily exhausts it, and we must rest before trying again. (Or, apparently, eat sugar!) It seems to me that in their secular life people have become so functionalized, everything measured and rationalized, that many seek the easy solace of the irrational in religion. We become used to accepting extraordinary claims on the flimsiest evidence, which we would never be satisfied with in a more mundane context. Just a thought…

    • Hi Bhante,

      thanks for your reply! I think in some ways there is an issue here about the distinction between what we think based on our reason, and how we think, pragmatically, we should best act on that in regard to those who oppose that position. An interesting point that’s been made recently – chiefly in Duncombe’s book ‘Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy’ – is that progressives have tended to think that the best way to accomplish their political aims (and here we can think of ‘political’ in the broadest sense) is to argue them out using reason, and so if they can just get their opposite number to see what is reasonable, they will convince them. Efforts then go into this – whereas Duncombe argues that it’s fantasy and spectacle which the Right continue to use succesfully in the present era, and that progressives need to come to grips with this if they are to regain lost ground (Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ is also good on the question of the way problems are framed being essentially where debates are won and lost).

      The lack of dialogue on the bhikkhuni issue must be incredibly frustrating for all concerned (on the side of ordination, or wanting it) – it seems to me here though that the particularly irritating thing is not that the ‘other side’ won’t listen to reason per se – although that is frustrating – but that the justifications are based on claims that they have, e.g. that it is ‘anti-Buddhist’ to ordain women, where ‘Buddhist’ here must be understood to ultimately point back to canonical authority, not social tradition (even if in reality that is clearly not the case). I wonder though, do you really think that the majority of Buddhists globally would be in favour of womens’ ordination?

      What I was thinking of with the reason thing, I guess, is the Enlightenment set of values that sees reason as the highest value and the final way to decide any given issue – although I wouldn’t think of myself as a New Ager, there are all kinds of oppressions and inequalities concealed in that position, I think. And we see what in some ways I think of as a rearguard defence of it in people like Dawkins, Hitchens etc (oh and also, if you’re interested, Zizek, who I mentioned recently in conversation – his piece on Buddhism is here:
      http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php )

      If you haven’t read the McMahan book, ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism,’ I would really recommend it, if as a layman to a bhikkhu I may be so bold – what it suggests is that most of what we understand as ‘Buddhism’ in the West, and also increasingly what middle and upper class Buddhist Asians understand as Buddhism, is actually a hybrid of Western Romanticism (emerging from the Germans initially) and the adoption of Western paradigms, including that of reason and science, by Asian Buddhist modernisers like Dharmapala, D. T. Suzuki etc. For me it’s a really good explanation of why ‘Buddhism’ as we encounter it tends to be so different to what you find if you actually read the suttas.

      But of course there is a huge difference here between people of different economic classes and ethnic or cultural groups – the danger I guess is to read Asian ‘folk Buddhism’ as somehow ‘behind,’ while, as a practitioner, also looking to what Buddhism as described by the suttas can lead to which isn’t achieved by that folk Buddhism – and here, I think, is where the academic stuff can be difficult inasmuch as the trend in academia has been toward relativism, so for example reversing the colonialist trends which saw present-day Asian Buddhism as degraded, which was a good thing, but in doing so failing to ask value questions about goals or purposes, which is what practitioners, in one way or another, are interested in – so where for example I would say, “it would be better if more people would practice Buddhism as described in the suttas,” this is where I’d depart from that relativist view.

      With metta,


    • Hi Rowan,

      I only have time to respond to a few of your many excellent points.

      I wonder though, do you really think that the majority of Buddhists globally would be in favour of womens’ ordination?

      Without a doubt. By far the greatest number of Buddhists follow the East Asian Mahayana (perhaps 500 million, as compared to 124 million for Theravada and 20 million for Tibetan Vajrayana). Bhikkhunis are accepted without question throughout East Asian Buddhism. Within Theravada, it is difficult to say. But I would suspect that a majority or sizable minority would support bhikkhuni ordination. However, if there was strong and clear support from the leadership, almost everyone would quickly support bhikkhunis.

      if you’re interested, Zizek, who I mentioned recently in conversation – his piece on Buddhism is here:
      http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php )

      Thanks for Zizek’s article, which I cheerfully wasted time on this morning. It was a hard job to wrestle through some truly horrendous sentences, but there were some interesting reflections at the end of the struggle. I liked his emphasis that the West’s projections on the East require it to be both sublime and horrific. We have had some discussions related to this on this blog before, and this expresses what I was thinking better than I was able to at the time. Once we escape past the naive fantasy of thinking Tibet (or anywhere else) is a heaven on earth, we tend to fall into the almost equally naive cynicism of imagining them to be a hell. And both of these fantasies disregard the actual lived reality of people.

      However, I didn’t like his implication that all such projection is a ‘fetish’. I like the word, and have used it myself in that context. For sure, it happens – within traditional Buddhism just as much as within western Buddhism. However, having external props to rely on in religious practices – myths, rituals, and the like – are not necessarily fetishes in a negative sense. They perform a function, and if one needs them they can be perfectly healthy. Coping strategies are good: they help you to cope. Which is, in most cases, better than the alternative.

      Zizek argues that the western fetishization of Buddhist (or Asian) culture serves as a prop for capitalism. But he gives precisely no evidence to support his idea. I think he is probably partly right, but I also think that a more careful study would show a more nuanced picture.

      For example, I know a therapist who is employed to treat high level executives. It seems that when they hit a certain age, they begin to lose the ruthless certainty that they had earlier. His job is to get them functioning as effectively as they were before, right there in the heart of capitalism. But his therapy often reveals that what is happening is that the executive is actually becoming compassionate, recognizing the effects of their ruthless business practices on others. So the job of Buddhism there is to see how compassion can be applied with wisdom, to enable the business to become compassionate. So yes, Buddhism (or more accurately, Buddhist-influenced therapy) is in one sense enabling capitalism. On the other hand, it is changing capitalism, in ways that can have a real benefit on people’s lives. For capitalism is no more a monolithic unchanging entity than is ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Asia’.

      One could make a similar argument regarding, say, Marxism. Marx’s ideal of championing the workers becomes so watered down that it ends up being merely OH&S policies and minimum wages, which help to keep the workers pacified inside the capitalist machine. True enough, but what do we conclude from that? OH&S and minimum wages are still good things. What’s the alternative?

      In the same way, if Buddhism can adapt itself to capitalism, and actually provide some benefit for people in the process, then that is merely a sign of Buddhism’s flexibility. Does it capture the full depth of the Dhamma? Of course not. Is it the best possible way to run a society? Probably not; but Buddhism is not a utopian philosophy.

      One other aspect of Zizek’s article I disagreed with was his insistence that the difference between the West and Tibet is that the West is externally orientated, whereas Tibet only looked inwards. Thus we build our fantasies of the Other, wheres that Other itself was entirely inward looking. I don’t believe this is the case at all. In Tibet, as in most Buddhist cultures, there is a strong nostalgic yearning for the purity of the Buddha’s India. The corruption and degradation of the present, bemoaned by Milarepa and others, is always in explicit or implicit contrast with a pure Buddhism of an imagined past. In addition, just as the West imagined Tibet as Shangri-la, Tibet had its Odiyan, a fabled land of wonders. Not to mention, of course, the extravagent imagery of the pure lands and other sanctified Other Places. So sure, Tibet was inward looking, as most cultures are, and reinforced by their geographic isolation. But this is not an insurmountable gulf between Tibet and the West, merely a different working out of some very common human traits. I fear Zizek has fallen into the very fault of ‘ideological colonialism’ that he criticizes in his article.

      And finally, you say:

      so where for example I would say, “it would be better if more people would practice Buddhism as described in the suttas,” this is where I’d depart from that relativist view.

      I think this is a good point in regards to relativism as it may be practiced. But I would distinguish that from what I would regard as ‘true relativism’ (irony intended!) When Einstein showed that there was no absolute resting point in the universe, this didn’t stop us for measuring location and velocity. We just do it relative to a given, while understanding that this is merely an assumption for practical purposes. In the same way, it seems to me, we should apply moral or spiritual relativism.

      So, to take a simple example, perhaps the most basic moral rule is that ‘murder is wrong’. Is that a moral absolute? I don’t think so. Let’s leave aside for now all the grey areas, and just think of the straightforward intentional killing of an innocent human. That is wrong in modern Australia. It was wrong in ancient India, and it was, I would say, wrong in every human culture. That is not because it is an ethical absolute, but because there is something in human nature that loves life. By ‘human nature’ I, of course, do not mean any essential or biological absolute, just the general nature of humanity as we know it. Relative to this context, the context of the human condition, killing is wrong. I find it difficult to imagine a world where killing is not wrong. But that doesn’t tell me I’ve discovered an ethical absolute, it tells me my imagination has limits. If human nature were to radically change, our ethical notions would inevitably change accordingly.

      So to return to the practice of Buddhism, while to assert that one way of practicing Buddhism is ‘better’ than others may contradict a shallow relativist position, it does not necessarily contradict what I am calling ‘true’ relativism. If it really is the case that the teachings of the Suttas, if judiciously and wisely practiced, lead to more happiness in our context, then it is perfectly relativistic to hold the view that this is ‘better’. Of course, that view may or may not be correct, but that’s a different matter.

      I seem to be belaboring the point here, but there are important things at stake. In western culture, there is a perceived crisis, first articulated by Nietzche, with the collapse of ‘absolute’ morality and the perceived moral vacuum of relativism. I don’t think this is necessarily the case even in the west; in fact our morals have evolved in many respects, and continue to do so. But this progress is chronically unsure of itself, as it is based on what are fairly trivial rationales and procedures. I am thinking of my time on the Human Research Ethics Committee at Royal North Shore Hospital. The discussions there never led to any ethical depth. It was all consent forms and not upsetting people. But the very shallowness of the discussion was a symptom that the horrific practices of the past, which lay behind the very idea of an Ethics Committee, were long gone. So the ethical practices and ideas had actually evolved, but the forms they took were shallow and bureaucratic.

      What Buddhism can offer, I believe, is an ethic that is in accord with the best aspects of modern relativism, while also being firmly grounded in an ancient and powerful spiritual teaching. But we can only do that when we stop being scared of relativism.

    • Thanks again for your thought-provoking reply, Bhante – I won’t get into the issues in depth because it’s such a long and complicated (though fascinating) discussion!

      But I will say that, in regard to ethics committees (my experience with ethics is mainly in regard to academic research), I tend to think that they should be renamed ‘Don’t Get Sued’ committees, as that’s what their sole purpose generally seems to be (and don’t even get me started on ‘ethics’ organisations in regard to in treatment of animal issues)… I remember when I was doing my honours year and we were learning about research ethics, I asked whether the ethics committee might have anything to do with the hypotheses or conclusions of work being unethical, and was more or less met with a blank stare.

  2. Dear Bhanti
    Would you know if there was any similarity b/w Buddhist teachings and early Vedas & Upanishads pre Dvapara Yuga?
    Thank you…..

    • Hi Jacqui,

      The notion of yugas is, so far as I know, a later one. I can’t think of any reference to it in any early texts, and i presume it is part of the puranic period. Don’t quote me on this, though, it is not something I’ve studied in detail.

      I wonder why you’re interested…?

    • Dear Bhante, thank you, i am interested if early vedic history has influenced any of Buddha’s teachings. I noted your comments on the sutras in one of your book. The sutras come much later…
      I will investigate further….

    • Oh, okay. I have researched this in a couple of areas, especially regarding meditation, the formation of scripture, and in some aspects of the mythology.

      As far as the ideas of yugas go, they seem to belong to that broad pan-Indian cosmology of endless cycles of rebirth. I’m not aware of any systematic study on how these ideas eveolved. I suspect that, as in many other areas, the multitude of ideas and perspectives offered in the earlier texts became gradually assimilated within a grand overarching vision. In some ways this can be discerned within Buddhism itself, still more so when the wider context is taken into consideration.

      Richard Gombrich has also written about the influence of Vedic ideas on Buddhism, you may want to check his books out.

  3. You said,

    “A recent study has made a strong case that people who hold conservative social values are less intelligent and more fearful.”

    I think it is very important to watch your language on reporting “studies”. Here are two important issues, which I am sure you know:
    (1) A study may show a correlation, but it does not imply causation. Being conservative does not make you less intelligent, and being less intelligent does not make you conservative.
    (2) When a significant difference for some trait is found between two groups, we have to be careful to see:
    (a) Is that difference impressively large? In medicine, we call this “statistical significance” vs “clinical significance”
    (b) Just because their is a difference, does not mean everyone or even most people in a group hold a trait. Ie: Not every conservative is less intelligent or more fearful.

    Without caution on these jumps, quoting studies amount to rhetorical demagoguery.

    Instead, the interesting thing here would be to explore why smart, kind, thoughtful people hold conservative values — rather than merely trying to demonize.

    • Hi Sabio,

      I appreciate your points, and agree with them all.

      But I can’t really see how what I said could have been any more cautious. I was informing that such a study existed, but didn’t make any claims as to its reliability or truth. The only suggestion I made was that those with a progressive voice should be more courageous in speaking out. This is a point I have made many times before, and in fact stems, not from this research, but from my general experience in the Buddhist community. The point really is that we shouldn’t be intimidated by loudness, repetition, intransigence, bloody-mindedness, and all the other rhetorical tactics that often tend to quell more sensitive and reflective voices.

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