An Example of the Motte and Bailey Doctrine
[In a] medieval castle…there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
Scott lists several examples, but I’d like to add one more: climate change.
The motte for climate change activists are the following:
- Global temperatures are rising.
- Greenhouse gases lead to increased temperatures.
- Greenhouse gases emitted by humans have led to measurable increases in temperature beyond what would have occurred without any humans.
The above points are highly defensible because Science. I believe they are true (though I do so only via trust in others rather than having evaluated any of the research involved personally).
Activists, however, do not sit in this motte for long. They often go on to make a lot of other claims in the bailey:
- Long-term projections of the Earth’s climate are accurate.
- Catastrophe will result in a few decades due to human carbon emissions.
- Nuclear energy is not a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
- Carbon capture is not viable.
- Geoengineering is not viable.
- Unilateral subsidization of renewables by Western industrialized nations is an effective way to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.
- Subsidies of energy-efficient products are a better use of resources rather than research and development.
- Subsidizing vehicles that pollute less than other vehicles will provide a net reduction in greenhouse emissions.
- LEED-certified buildings are more energy-efficient than old buildings.
- Building new LEED-certified buildings reduces net greenhouse emissions relative to not building them.
- Sending oil by railcar will result in less net emissions than sending oil through a pipeline (e.g. the Keystone pipeline).
Not all activists make all of these claims, but I think most make at least some claims that are less defensible than those in the motte.
The end result is that anyone who opposes any of the views, even questionable ones sitting in the bailey, can be branded an anti-science denialist. Strictly speaking, this is unfair since there certainly isn’t a scientific consensus on questions like whether it makes sense to spend thousands of dollars subsidizing Chevy Volts while taxing bicycles and safety helmets at 8%.
Practically speaking, it might be fair; the polarization of beliefs means that a lot of the people who question the bailey beliefs also deny those in the motte. It would violate the principles of symmetry for political opponents to share any common ground.
If you are a global warming activist, questioning LEED would be putting an arrow into the back of one of your own soldiers. Sure, it’s not exactly clear whether that soldier is helping or hurting your cause, but you know he is at least nominally on your team.
I can’t help but feel that this reluctance is associated with bad and perhaps counterproductive policy. Environmentalists couldn’t criticize ethanol even when it used more oil to produce than it saved because ethanol was was a soldier on their side.
It seems that a lot of our attempts at restricting global warming have to do with increasing consumption. (I wonder why that might be.)
The types of consumption that receive subsidies might be somewhat better in some dimensions than those that came before, but it’s not clear that it actually helps counter global warming. Should we really be encouraging people to recycle working CFL light bulbs with LEDs? No one seems incentivized to give a reasonable answer to such questions. And, yes, I checked vox.com.
Seemingly most who become interested in the environment as a topic either swallows both the motte and the bailey or opposes both.
Can you think of any other domains in which the motte-and-bailey claim jiu-jitsu is employed?