Back in 1990, Mike Godwin, then legal counsel for the advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that online discussions on the various USENET fora suffered from a problem. After a while, many discussions would involve someone posting a comparison to the Nazis or to Adolf Hitler. He decided to do something about it.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
As he told Wired magazine back in 1994, “It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer. …It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration camp victims did not die to give some net blowhard a handy trope).” So Godwin engaged in what he termed “an experiment in memetic engineering.” He developed Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
The law was intended simply to draw attention to the inappropriateness of the analogy, but it succeeded in many more ways. Godwin pointed out that it “mutated into even more useful forms. As Cuckoo's Egg author Cliff Stoll once said to me: “Godwin's Law? Isn't that the law that states that once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over?'”
Godwin's Law certainly seems to have worked online. It (or one of its mutations) is frequently cited to embarrass over-enthusiastic “newbies” who have stooped to the comparison, and its use generally brings the discussion to an end. There is even a variant, widely accepted, that states that the party invoking the Nazis as a debating tactic in any argument where there is not some direct relevance automatically loses the argument, simply because, as one reference puts it, “these events were so horrible that any comparison to any event less serious than genocide is invalid and in poor taste.”
In the light of this well-established argument, what, then, are we to make of the recent extraordinary remarks of Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? He compared Bjørn Lomborg, Danish statistician and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, to Adolf Hitler in an interview with Jyllandsposten, a leading Danish newspaper (published April 21).
Pachauri said, “What is the difference between Lomborg's view of humanity and Hitler's? You cannot treat people like cattle. You must respect the diversity of cultures on earth. Lomborg thinks of people like numbers. He thinks it would be cheaper just to evacuate people from the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Maldives, rather than trying to prevent world sea levels from rising so that island groups like the Maldives or Tuvalu just disappear into the sea. But where's the respect for people in that? People have a right to live and die in the place where their forefathers have lived and died. If you were to accept Lomborg's way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.”
The Skeptical Environmentalist's longest chapter is devoted to global warming. In it, Lomborg accepts the IPCC's scientific assessment reports as the basis of his analysis. What Pachauri apparently objects to is that Lomborg concludes that the Kyoto Protocol would do almost nothing to reduce the rate of global warming, but at enormous expense. For a fraction of the costs of Kyoto, many pressing environmental problems afflicting poor countries could be addressed.
This is hardly Nazi thinking, but it is not the first time the Nazi analogy or something like it has been directed at Dr. Lomborg. The British scientific journal Nature, for instance, in November 2001 published a review of The Skeptical Environmentalist by Stuart Pimm of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Columbia University, and Jeff Harvey of the Centre for Terrestrial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology. They said, “The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren't dying of AIDS, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.”
Godwin's Law and its variants teach us many things. They teach us that genuine debate is not well served by Nazi analogies. They teach us that those who employ Nazi analogies usually have either weak arguments or are too emotionally invested in the subject to be dispassionate on the issue. And they teach us that those who see Nazi analogies being employed are liable to trust those who use them less.
All these lessons apply in current environmental policy debates. If we are to reach sound democratically based conclusions on the issues, then we could do without the inflammatory language from one side. Those who are obsessed with equating the thinking of vegetarian Danish professors of statistics with that of the one of the greatest monsters of history condemn themselves and their arguments with them. From all we have learned from Godwin's Law, it may be a sign that they have lost the argument already.