Dear Liberal Reform, declaring something is ‘a solution’ doesn’t make it one

Jimmy Carr has a joke about being stopped on the street by someone asking him ‘can you spare two minutes for cancer research?’ ‘Sure,’ he replies, ‘but I don’t think we’ll get much done.’

I suspect members of the Liberal Reform pressure group don’t get that joke, as going by their recent publication ‘The Environment: A Solution’, they’re probably thinking about what they’d do with the thirty seconds they’d have left after curing all cancers. Yes, the brave minds at Liberal Reform (and despite this having only one author — Joe Otten — it’s presented as an official Liberal Reform publication, so they can all share the collective shame for it with him) have clearly spent whole minutes thinking about the environment and managed to solve the entire environment in under 17 pages, including title page, contents and footnote.

Yes, footnote singular. There is precisely one reference in the entire document. When I wrote about Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, I headlined the post as ‘citation needed’ to remark on just how little he backed up his assertions with any sources. Compared to this, Browne’s work was akin to a PhD thesis in its attention to facts and justification. Pretty much every paragraph involves at least one vaguely asserted idea, poorly researched fact, or blatant straw man summation of potential objection, and only one of them gets the privilege of a reference. Even more oddly, it’s for a tangential reference to how aircraft contrails have different atmospheric effects at different times of the day. Maybe I have a slightly fussy academic insistence on wanting people to actually evidence their arguments, but surely someone purporting to have solved the environment ought to be demonstrating that their study of the subject consists of a bit more reading than one article in Nature?

I admit that I’ve had training in many different types of quantitative and qualitative research methods in the social sciences, and I am currently writing this post while seated in an academic library, but some of the assertions in it are easily checked using that obscure research method known as JFGI. Using this method I find that where Liberal Reform have written “The ozone layer has been saved. Acid rain? What happened to that?”, current research suggests that ‘no it hasn’t’, and ‘still a lingering problem, likely to be exacerbated if the Trump administration guts previous environmental protections’ are more accurate statements. It’s pure chance that I’m writing this on the day Thames Water gets fined £20m to make the assertion that ‘we have clean water’ look somewhat weaker than the author intended, but surely the fact that the richest country on Earth can have something like the Flint water crisis is perhaps evidence that things aren’t as rosy for everyone.

This lack of engagement with any actual evidence permeates the entire piece. The widely understood phenomenon of induced demand (building roads creates more traffic) is dismissed as ‘anti-car environmentalism’, while any attempts to point out that issues might be linked are dismissed as ‘holistic (i.e. woolly) thinking’. There’s no attempt to engage with any contradictory ideas, no desire to go out and look at what other people have discovered, thought or written, but instead there’s pure bloke-in-the-pub certainty that they can all be dismissed with a contemptuous handwave and the certainty of Liberal Reform’s reckon can substitute for all of them.

And in the end, what is the solution to the environment? Well, apparently governments should do something about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we should stop releasing so much pollution into the atmosphere to improve air quality, and we definitely should do something to protect the natural environment but not so much that it damages the economy and development. In other words, Something Must Be Done. If only all those moaning environmentalists had realised that the solution to all their problems was merely deciding that someone must Do Something, then we could have sorted out the environment years ago. I eagerly await future publications in this series from Liberal Reform, and having solved the environment, might I suggest taking the bold step of tackling war next? The world is surely crying out for a recommendation that if we all stopped fighting then we wouldn’t have wars any more. With that sorted, I’m sure Liberal Reform will be able to spend those couple of minutes they have free finding a cure for cancer.

(Originally posted here)

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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