The Ethics of Ignorance and Apathy: Gore’s Million Degree Gaffe

I didn’t watch Al Gore when he appeared on the Tonight Show a couple weeks ago. What he said then while hobnobbing with Conan should be old news, but in fact it was no news at all, because virtually no news media gave it more than a passing mention. Then, by purest accident, I heard a talk-radio host ranting about a shocking statement Gore had made on the show, and I checked to see if he could possibly be quoting the former Vice-President correctly.

He was. Here is the exchange:

Conan: Now, what about … you talk in the book about geothermal energy …

Al: Yeah, yeah.

Conan: and that is, as I understand it, using the heat that’s generated from the core of the earth …

Al: Yeah.

Conan: … to create energy, and it sounds to me like an evil plan by Lex Luthor to defeat Superman. Can you, can you tell me, is this a viable solution, geothermal energy?

Al: It definitely is, and it’s a relatively new one. People think about geothermal energy — when they think about it at all — in terms of the hot water bubbling up in some places, but two kilometers or so down in most places there are these incredibly hot rocks, ‘cause the interior of the earth is extremely hot, several million degrees, and the crust of the earth is hot … [You can see the exchange on YouTube here.]

Yes, it’s true.  Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner, esteemed authority on  climate change policy, who has just published his second book on the topic in the midst of being a human clarion on the need for America and the world to transform its industry and change its lifestyle to avert environmental catastrophe, believes that the earth’s interior is “several million degrees.” Al Gore, who has presented himself as an authority—someone to be trusted and believed— on the extremely complex science of understanding the forces affecting the earth’s temperature, made a statement on network television regarding the earth, its temperature and heat that was so wrong that it should have caused any sixth-grader of relatively sound brain chemistry to jump to her feet and shout, “What? Did I really hear that?”

But sixth-graders don’t watch The Tonight Show. Maybe that’s the problem.

Baseball writer Bill James has described a useful concept that he calls “signature significance.” It describes the kind of single instance or event that cannot reasonably be dismissed as an anomaly, one that all by itself tells us something revealing and true about the individual involved, where the conventional wisdom in statistics that a small sample or single instance of anything cannot serve as conclusive proof. In his original 1985 essay, James showed that pitching one especially outstanding game in the Major Leagues—no runs, a couple of hits, double-figure strikeouts without any walks— proved that a young pitcher was unusually talented, because in the long history of baseball, no mediocre pitcher had pitched such a game even once. One such game provided sufficient evidence to prove that its pitcher (James was discussing a promising second-year Red Sox pitcher named Roger Clemens) had much more than average ability.

Signature significance is a useful tool in assessing ability and character in other fields, not just sports. When “Seinfeld” comic Michael Richards suddenly started screaming racial epithets at African-American audience members during a comedy appearance, his excuse that it was just an inexplicable lapse that didn’t prove he was a racist rang false. Such an outburst has signature significance: people who are not racists simply don’t do things like that, even once.
Similarly, legitimate experts don’t make outrageously wrong statements on the subject matter of their expertise even once. They may misspeak, but because they are experts, the second the ridiculous words come out of their mouths, they correct themselves. They may be mistaken, but only within a reasonable range  for an expert. A supposed expert on evolution who states that the earth is 6,000 years old knows nothing about evolution, and can be safely dismissed as a fraud. A renowned astronomer who confidently states that the moon is made of cheese must have  faked his credentials, because a real astronomer would never say such a thing, even once.

Gore’s statement that the earth is millions of degrees is as ignorant and wrong as either of those statements.  If the earth was that hot, we would all be vaporized and the earth itself would be consumed. The temperature at the earth’s core, 4,000 miles down, is somewhere between 5,000 degrees and 9,000 degrees Celsius, which is pretty warm. The temperature at the surface of the Sun is around 6,000 degrees Celsius, and its center reaches more than 10 million degrees. In the Scopes Trial, Clarence Darrow ridiculed the Bible  for  saying that Joshua stopped the Earth from traveling around the sun, pointing out that such an occurrence would end all life and that the authors of the Bible had to be scientifically ignorant to believe  such a thing. Well, the fate of the Earth’s population at a million degrees would be no better.

Al Gore has the earth mixed up with the Sun.

It isn’t funny. He has exposed his masquerade with signature significance: Al Gore doesn’t understand the rudiments of earth science, yet he is making speeches and writing books asserting his supposedly informed opinions on international climate control policies. He became the face of global warming alarm, not because he reviewed the science and found it compelling, but because he saw a useful career platform, a way to become powerful, influential, and rich. His real role in “An Inconvenient Truth” was the same one that Morgan Freeman had in “March of the Penguins,” except that it is likely Morgan Freeman is a lot better informed on penguins that Al Gore is on earth science.

Does this mean giving Gore the Nobel Peace Prize for narrating “An Inconvenient Truth” was the equivalent of giving Morgan Freeman the Nobel Biology Prize for his film? I’m afraid so.

Yet despite Gore’s inexcusable ignorance and the inescapable implications of it, only conservative blogs, Fox News, and right wing radio have publicized his statement. This is more disturbing  ethically than Gore’s conduct, and it continues a pattern. Gore revealing himself as not only a false climate change expert but a scientific dolt should concern everyone, not just the opponents of climate change policy. Gore has played a pivotal role in creating public and political pressure for CO2 emission controls, and he didn’t know what he was talking about: isn’t that news? Isn’t that important? It took me weeks to find out about it, and I follow the news and popular culture as part of my job. Because a story could be harmful to a liberal cause dear to the hearts of most reporters, he mainstream news media left  it to be covered by conservatives, so it could then be marginalized as a “conservative news media story.” That is a disgrace to journalism. But typical.

Where is accountability and fairness? Ronald Reagan, while running for president in 1980, commented  that trees were a major cause of pollution. He was ridiculed in the press and by Democrats as an idiot; yet that statement was nowhere near as scientifically clueless as Gore’s, and Reagan never pretended to be an authority on pollution or trees. In 2007, a hapless contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant answered a question about American ignorance of geography with this:

“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because uh some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and uh I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for.

She was subsequently ridiculed far and wide, especially in the Left-leaning blogosphere, which gleefully used her as a metaphor for the ignorance of the Bush Administration. Yet nothing she said (whatever it was) was as flat-out wrong as Gore’s statement, and she was just a teen-aged beauty pageant contestant who never pretended to be anything but a great young body in a bikini.

Combine Ronald Reagan and a beauty pageant contestant and you get…Sarah Palin, of course! Can you imagine what the media, not to mention Tina Fey, would have done to Palin if she said the earth was over a million degrees?

Sure you can.

Yesterday, “The Daily Beast” columnist Lloyd Grove presented an extremely wide-ranging and detailed interview he had with Gore. They covered everything from Copenhagen to Climategate to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, but Grove never mentioned Gore’s appearance with Conan. Why? Because he didn’t think it mattered as much as whether Chelsea was going to convert to Judaism? Because Gore told him not to? Because Grove didn’t know about it? Which of these explanations do you find most palatable?

Look, this isn’t about climate change. The issues are trust, integrity, accountability and honesty. I know t post is too long, and it is because I am angry, frustrated and astounded: angry that our opinion leaders so frequently are fakes and frauds, frustrated that the media is so irresponsible and biased in its reporting of it, and astounded that the public— liberals, conservatives, Democrats or Republicans,–meekly tolerate it as long as it supports their “team.”

The signature significance is this: the man who was the tipping point for public and political acceptance of global warming doesn’t know what he is talking about, and conned us into believing he did. Anyone who doesn’t think that matters is as untrustworthy as Albert Gore, Jr.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Ignorance and Apathy: Gore’s Million Degree Gaffe

  1. Pingback: Trust the Science, Not the Scientist? « Ethics Alarms

  2. Pingback: Al Gore’s Unethical New York Times Op-ed « Ethics Alarms

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