Mark Twain on the climate debate

The Shakespeare debate as an analogy for climate?

The so-called Shakespeare authorship question has some similarities to the climate debate. The vast majority (97%?) of academics working in the field have no doubt that the author of the plays was the actor from Stratford, though there are some exceptions. But many people, including prominent Shakespearean actors such as Mark Rylance, are doubtful.
Familiar tactics are employed by the two sides. The mainstream side has difficulty deciding whether to ignore the sceptics, or to criticise them at the risk of giving them publicity. When they do respond, they tend to characterise the doubters as nutters (one of them had the unfortunate name of Thomas Looney).  Some of the sceptics oblige by coming up with bonkers theories such as those presented in the film  Anonymous (in which some of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers turn out to be her sons).  The mainstream refuses to accept that the sceptics have simply looked at the facts and found them unconvincing, but ascribes to them unusual personality traits or flaws that cause them to think this way.
The sceptics argue that the mainstream academics have a lot to lose, and are therefore biased. Sounds familiar?

Mark Twain’s book

One of the high-profile early Shakespeare sceptics was Mark Twain. In 1909, near the end of his life, he wrote a book called Is Shakespeare dead?, which expressed various doubts (such as the lack of any mention of plays or poems in Shakespeare’s will, and the dubious assumptions made by Shakespeare scholars based on virtually no evidence).

But as might be expected from Twain, some of the latter sections of the book satirise and ridicule the style of the debate. Again here there are some sections that seem distinctly familiar.

In Chapter 11 he gives a nice description of what is now called “confirmation bias” – the idea that once a viewpoint is established, evidence is no longer treated objectively, and discusses the pointlessness of trying to win the argument:

 “Am I trying to convince anybody that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s Works? Ah, now, what do you take me for?…  I am aware that when even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition.”

The most amusing bit is chapter 12, on the irreverence employed by the other side, who he refers to throughout as “thugs”.   Here are two excerpts:

“One of the most trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolaters, these Shakesperoids, these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit.”

“It will surely be much better all around if the privilege of regulating the irreverent and keeping them in order shall eventually be withdrawn from all the sects but me. Then there will be no more quarrelling, no more bandying of disrespectful epithets, no more heart burnings.”

I was reminded of Twain’s remarks by some recent tweets from a well-known climate scientist complaining about childish name-calling:

2 thoughts on “Mark Twain on the climate debate

  1. Thank God for the sanity mixed with humor that was Mark Twain.

    And parts of the blogosphere “debate” could definitely use his commentary, no question.

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