Saturday, February 9, 2013

Staged photos and real facts--a Carbon Based original

    What counts as evidence?  The question occurred to me while reading Errol Morris's Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.  Morris explores images from the Roger Fenton's photos of the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War, to torture photos from Abu Ghraib, to an ambrotype found in the hand of a dead Union soldier at Gettysburg.

    He suggests that photographs, like other "evidence," are often ambiguous, sometimes maddeningly so. In a chapter called "Photography and Reality (Captioning, Propaganda, and Fraud)," he dwells on a controversial image from the 1930s that has a an analogy to the subject of climate change today. 

    FDR created the Farm Security Administration in 1937 to alleviate rural poverty. The FSA's photo department employed many titans of photography, among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, to document the farmers' plight. Conservatives hated the FSA to begin with, and the photography department was the object of particular scorn. 

    On one assignment, Rothstein took several photos of a cow skull on dry soil in South Dakota, and the FSA released it to the media. The Washington Post's caption read, "From Pennington, South Dakota, comes this photo of a bleached skull on a sun-baked grasslass plain giving solemn warning that here is a land the desert threatens." (The FSA's own caption was less didactic, by the way.)  Please note, I wasn't able to find the exact image of the skull that appeared n the Post-- shown here is another image from the same take.

    The New Deal's enemies thundered that the photo had been staged, a staging that was evidence of the fraud behind the effort to bring relief to poor farmers.  And indeed, Rothstein had moved the cow skull ten feet from where he found it.  Accordingly, they declared, that exceeded the bounds of documentary integrity. 

    Morris says, "What makes these accusations of photo fakery utterly perverse is the claim that they unfairly portrayed a drought.... But the Dakotas were experiencing a severe drought."  The Dust Bowl was real, and a large part of the country was in a state of ecological and agricultural collapse. But the conservatives reacted as if one piece of photographic stagecraft -- arranging props for the camera -- negated the reality.  The Fargo paper and the conservatives in general reacted so viscerally because of their seething political suspicions of government reforms and measures that might crimp business activity. 

    The same suspicion, stoked by fossil fuel propaganda, distorts climate controversies today.

    Another tacit assumption seems to have been present, too, one that might be called crackpot empiricism, or the positivist delusion. This is the belief that empirical observations alone are the foundation of all rational inquiry. Theory and observation are totally separate, and theories must rest on a base of observations.  In keeping with this foundationalist outlook, the conservatives of the 1930s and the denialists also seem to believe that if one piece of evidence, one observation, doesn't hold up for any reason, then their enemy's entire edifice collapses. 

    Much of 20th century philosophy involved a detailed critique of this delusion.  Morris alludes to this critique in a subsequent chapter of Believing is Seeing, citing a 1958 book by Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, which countered the positivist delusion by insisting that observations are theory-laden. Or, as Morris points out, "Our beliefs do not determine what is true or false. They do not determine objective reality. But they can determine what we 'see.'" Indeed, one of the themes of Believing is Seeing is a tussle with the positivist delusion -- observation is not as simple as it looks, and we bring our theoretical point of view to everything we observe.

    In practice, incompatible observations can put a strain on theories, but most theories can accommodate a surprising amount of divergence before they begin to get into trouble.  They are baggy and loose in this sense.

    The early fear was that this looseness opened the door too wide to relativism and unreason. The work of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos among many others energetically investigated how to choose rationally among competing theories.  The upshot is that the theory-laden nature of facts does not plunge us into a state of relativistic undecidability, where there are no facts, only competing points of view.  Instead of something with a foundation, knowledge is a network where successful theories and observations must strongly cohere. 

    Decades of philosophical arguments have sharpened the sense that although observations are theory laden, some theories are still better from others.  Reality begins to emerge when many observations in one field as well as in other sciences provide strong corroboration for the same theory.  Empirical observations of the climate, for example, steadily agree with the theories of atmospheric chemistry, physics, and a long list of other disciplines. It all points to climate change as a real issue with a human cause. Observations are not solitary, but part of a much larger group. When many squadrons of facts tend to corroborate a theory, that's signficant.

    So the question of whose science to believe can be readily answered.  For believers in anthropogenic climate change, a long list of major scientific bodies, national and international, regularly affirm the consensus view of climate change.  They marshal a large army of facts to support their case.

    On the denialist side, a squad of often discredited quacks maintains the opposite. Their numbers are small and their arguments are regularly refuted, but their struggle continues on life support from hundreds of millions of fossil fuel dollars. They see themselves as the teenagers in Red Dawn, singlehandedly fighting off a Soviet invasion of Colorado.

    As citizens, we're often called upon to make decisions based on scientific data that we don't personally understand. We wind up having to accept some things on the authority of people who know more.  And which evidence will you believe?  In the climate change controversies, which science you accept seems to depend on politics. But on the denialist side, you have to ignore a whole lot more evidence to mainain your point of view.

    Whether or not the cow's skull was moved, there was a drought in 1937.

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