War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses.Carl von Clausewitz, On War
I have lots of thoughts about this really great Timothy Snyder piece on the US 2016 elections, (not least, I wonder what it means for how we understand Brexit too?)
But most of all I’m reminded of Gary Kasparov’s declaration that the point of modern propaganda is not to make you believe something but it’s to make you believe nothing. (I paraphrase slightly). Much of the piece is about how the Russian propaganda operation as been so successful at engendering doubt about Ukraine and the state of relations between Russia and Ukraine.
I sometimes feel the invasion of Ukraine has really been a wake-up call for many of us because it’s just so undeniable. An actual event happening to real people that we know with a pretty clear narrative. The genius of Russian influence operations has always been to muddy the waters sufficiently that it was a little hard to trust anything that anyone said or wrote.
In this sense I’ve also found Timothy Snyder’s series on the making of modern Ukraine (which I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks) brilliant and helpful and interesting. The subject is fascinating, but it also because it becomes clear listening to a historian that, yes there can be different ways to interpret events, but the events themselves are real and we have a duty to try to learn the facts before judging them.
This is of course exactly how scientists should think, that we have to establish good observational data before trying to interpret it. We also need, inevitably to consider what are the uncertainties and likely range within that data. What is missing? What can’t we know? What is the most likely interpretation based on the things we can observe? How reliable are our measurements?
One of my favourite teachers at school who really helped to develop the way I think was very clear on how to do this. And he was not a scientist, he was a historian.
Ultimately, I was more interested in understanding the physical world and went on to study glaciers, ice sheets and the climate system at the poles. However, as I’ve been focusing more on sea level rise and how on earth we adapt to a changing climate it’s quite clear that going back to the social sciences will be important to understand human behaviour. And the murky way other actors seek to influence us as we adapt to climate change is also going to be important to understand. There has been undue influence from a “Merchants of Doubt” perspective for sure for many years when it comes to the causes of climate change and the effects. This is very clear in the mess of climate denial that the new Lord of Twitter has unleashed, it’s a little bit like returning to 2009.
But here we are in 2023 and there are apparently serious politicians having hissy fits over the idea that a significant source of indoor air pollution should maybe be replaced with a far more efficient alternative (yes I’m talking about replacing gas stoves with electric induction), imagine how climate adaptation can be weaponised just as for example COVID vaccination was as part of the culture wars?
Anyway, this is a bit incoherent maybe. But it’s a great piece for clarifying what we know now and maybe for working out what comes next in terms of Russian interference in democratic institutions. And from a climate scientist perspective it’s also another reason to try to avoid (if we can), becoming just another cultural battleground. This is also key: it’s not always about money, sometimes people really are being manipulated for other reasons:
“When people act in the interest of a foreign power, it is sometimes for money, it is sometimes because the foreign power knows something about them, it is sometimes for ideals, and it is sometimes for no conscious motive at all — what one thinks of as one’s own motives have been curated, manipulated, and directed. It seems quite possible — I raise it as a hypothesis that reasonable people would consider — that some mixture of these factors was at work at FBI New York in 2016.”
Well worth reading the whole thing.