Friday, July 31, 2009

~ a sceptic of the skeptoid

I listen to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid podcast every week, but sometimes he drives me crazy. The episode entitled ‘SUV phobia’ is a good example

To quote:

Let's spend some time on the trendy fad of looking for villains to blame for global warming. My flavour of the week is SUV's, those evil gas guzzling, ozone destroying, unethical, politically incorrect, Nazi family soccer wagons. Only let's not do it the trendy way, let's look at the issue sceptically.

He argues articulately that the SUV is a style of car rather than a mechanical category - and fair enough. He berates city councils for banning this ‘style’ of car rather than specifying fuel-inefficient or over-large cars - and fair enough. He lets us know that ‘the majority’ of SUVs are neither bigger nor less fuel-efficient than the average car - and, if this is true, fair enough. What’s more, the SUV ‘style’ obeys modern emission laws, so is generally cleaner than many older cars.

But isn’t he missing the point somewhat?

It is only recently that the American term ‘SUV’ has begun to replace the Australian descriptor ‘Four Wheel Drive’ and half way through the podcast I began to wonder exactly what kind of car Dunning was referring to. Was there a definition discontinuity? Certainly, there seem to be a great many of the small SUV types on the road, but these are not the ‘villains’ fuelling the issue.

Hummer 2s, Range Rovers and Canyoneros (whatever) are heavy vehicles - there are no two ways about it. To move their considerable mass, a larger engine and more fuel is required. What people are complaining about is the use of such vehicles in situations and environments in which they are unnecessary and in which their fuel use is therefore excessive. People also complain about of the ability given their owners, who may lack a certain sensitivity, to access areas of the planet which require just this sensitivity to survive. And this aside from the clumsiness in the parking lot, the dangers these vehicles create as an obstacle to clear vision on the roads ,and their poor ‘crash compatibility’ with normal sedans.

Face it. They’re jet-skis.

It is natural for thoughtful, caring people to recoil against what appears to be a flagrant waste of resources and a font of unnecessary pollution. Therefore, inevitably, the large ‘SUV’ has become a symbol of excess, an icon for just the kind of behaviour that is threatening our world. If city councils have banned them, then huzzah! They are underscoring a basic human moral. They are helping remind the populace that it is gross and offensive to shit where you live.

If, as Dunning argues, there is a by-catch of small, low polluting cars, then that can surely be addressed, though it is, I would contend, a secondary issue. That the military Humvee [H1] and the Hummer 2 do not share a single component is indeed ‘another example of why you should be sceptical of marketing labels’ but it should not divert attention from the barbaric nature of the vehicle itself. I have seen an H2 and there is no way anyone is going to convince me it is a city-appropriate, fuel-efficient, planet-friendly vehicle. Even its advertising slogan ‘Get Lost’ seems to admit this, having a sub-text aimed at those who would criticise the unashamedly boorish artifact.

The angle Brian Dunning takes on the SUV issue is certainly sceptical. Logical too. But I would draw the line at humanist. I have noticed this kind of thing on other occasions too, as I tread the vasty deeps of the sceptisphere. The new sceptics can sometimes get so enthusiastic with their critical analysis that they discard the human element. Even Richard Dawkins is sometimes a culprit.

Certainly, as Dunning says, container ships produce carbon emissions equivalent to 300,00 cars and are not subject to emission laws, but there are many more cars than container ships.* And without the billions of stuff-hungry people those ships would be mothballed. And there’s the rub. A simple confusion over categorisation should not stop or discourage us reducing excess in our daily lives. Like many, I hold strongly to the credo ‘think globally, act locally’.

* Are there 300,000 cars for each container ship in the world? I would guess there are a lot more. But it’s only a guess, and I’m flirting with sceptics here.

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