Category Archives: Social psychology

The “faith “of conservatives and climate change: values and world views in conflict – god, free markets and denial

Another great post from fellow blogger Mothincarnate about how we see the world, and what drives our acceptance or rejection of science.

Moth and I have been discussing the concept of “neo-fundamentalism“, a tentative way to describe the blending of religiosity, the denial of science and “faith” in free markets that seems to pervade aspects of the conservative movement in the United States and to a lessor extent Australia. It includes the following trends:

  • a conservative Christian world view (not just Evangelical)
  • motivated and with a large supporter base that straddles class/education divides
  • dismissive of science such as AGW, stem cells and evolution
  • dismissive of expertise and expert opinion in contradiction to core values
  • dismissive of government (small or big), equating it with socialism
  • free market advocates
  • socially conservative: hostile to the expanding ethical circle that includes gays, minorities, secularists
  • willingness to embrace aspects of the conspiracy culture to explain failures or limits to action

It is an admittedly clumsy approach to trying to capture, or muse upon, broader social and political trends. Readers are welcome to comment.

See his post below.

Imposing Meaning: The Conflict Between Ideologies Masked as Reasoned Debate

Light in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Events contain no meaning in themselves, only the meaning the mind imposes on them. Yet, the world endures…

As a teenager, I was obsessed with the animated series Æon Flux. The above is part of a quote that opened episode 5 of season 3, where Trevor Goodchild was having a ‘Hamlet moment’. It has been changed in a more recent release of the series.

It has stuck with me for close to twenty years now. Memorised. Hardwired.

Musing over it today, I see it differently than I did as a teenager. Perhaps less moved, but still as thought provoking.

While meaningful to the state of mind of the character, it is at once an illustration of the human ego and also desperately fatalistic.

Visible light is but a small region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some species, take for instance certain bee species, can see wavelengths outside this range. Perhaps on a much grander scale, infrared plays more influence over the universe…

More importantly, in reflecting the meaning of events, we hit the fatalistic note. It’s the mind that imposes meaning. Well, of course it is.

Meaning is, after all, the way a self-aware entity makes sense of the information it receives about the known universe surrounding it. Meaning is as important to the self-aware entity as is itself. It has to be. One cannot be self-aware without assigning meaning to the information that bombards for it is that information which leads to the persistence of the self-awareness (ie. staying alive).

This is an important note to my recent posts on values and science. The separation of personal values and scientific certainty is clearly an illusion, based on an impersonal (and functionally impractical) philosophy. All information that reaches each one of us must contain both objective and subjective meaning or else it would be rejected as meaningless. This seems a no-brainer, but in practice, we do separate meaning into pigeon holes as though there were functionally different categories, which in practice, there clearly are not.

I’d like to thank the author of Climate and Stuff for the post, Good God! This is realy scary stuff. In the post, the author highlights some of the points of the declaration on global warming from the Cornwall Alliance. While no surprises are to be found, they deserve reflection by anyone interested in the communication of increasing scientific certainty.

Here are a couple worth pointing out;

What we believe

1) We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

What we deny

1) We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

Points 2 – 5 are also worthy of reflection and debate, however as they are hinged on these two points of belief and denial (I thank them for using that word) and are points rebutted elsewhere, at great length, I won’t bother here.

The first thing to note here is that the points quoted are clearly wrong. A casual look into species abundance over the industrial era demonstrates ecosystems are not robust, suited for human flourishing, they are self-evidently fragile to outside impacts, such as human induced degradation. So much so that Rockström et al (2009) places biodiversity loss as significantly more impacted by human activity than climate change, ocean acidity and a host of other variables. Left to their own devices, with ample range and resources, it has been demonstrated that ecosystems can be resilient (Fischer et al 2006), but this remains contradictory to the rest of the statements being made.

The core value being address in this declaration is that the earth and ecosystems are “created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence”. This is the meaning that many minds have imposed on the information they received.

Directly, it has nothing to do with climate change or biodiversity loss, but simply that the world is our divine playground in which we can do no wrong. Thus, errors such as those I’ve pointed out above miss the point of the declaration entirely. To say as much or to point out that “minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry” relates to more than 10 gigatonnes additional CO2 per year and can only be considered “miniscule” if unfairly balanced against Nitrogen and Oxygen (both of which play no role in the greenhouse effect) is translated to, “you are wrong about your core value; that is, your god”.

I am not certain about my reader, but I’m not here to challenge the religious faiths of other people. They can choose to believe any ancient mythology of their choosing. However, I don’t want their beliefs to be shoved onto me. Here is a clear example of faith based values doing just that; through the continuing paralysis on both biodiversity loss and climate change I am party to ideologies that amount to, “she’ll be right – God’s looking after us.”

I find such apparent dependency (assuming there is a god looking after us) infantile and degrading, especially when it is obvious the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo), the Thylacinus cynocephalus (Thylacine) and Rheobatrachus silus (Gastric-brooding frog) among others as well as the difference in ambient conditions between the earth and her satellite all stand as evidence to the contrary.

Hence such musings have not only exposed the core values of people such as those of the Cornwell Alliance, but also my own. At the root, I cannot help but feel I am being asked to relinquish a sense of control – thus meaning – to my life. I’m being asked to take a leap of faith that common-sense tells me is a bad move.

It’s easy to see how quickly such discussions can go astray.

While we may be addressing the science, in reality, we’ve walked into a debate over ideologies; in the meaning the mind imposes on events. How we avoid this, when such groups as the Cornwell Alliance explicitly thread their theology to certain views of the world (such as climate change and biodiversity loss), remains to be seen.

Personally, I won’t hold my breath on a superpower saving us from ourselves. I just can’t do it. History is too full of plague, famine, extinction and hardship that I can’t take solace in a higher force whom, we are told, sides with the victors. Likewise, in weaving their core values to a certain way of seeing the world,* it seems clear that such people are equally unlikely to budge.

So what remains? My suggestion would be to question. “What real world evidence do you have that ecosystems are robust and self-correcting?” or “How does extinction fit into this?” or “Climate has indeed changed over the millennia – but it has been too cold and too hot to support human life in a way that “flourishes” today, what if this occurs again?” for instance.

You would be unlikely to change their minds, true, but maybe, just maybe, the cracks might start forming between the evidence available and the contradictory meaning already imposed. Hopefully, at the very least, the poor marriage between the evidence and certain ideologies may lead groups such as the Cornwell Alliance to unpick the threads they’ve sowed between the two.  Maybe they will find a better match with governance – good stewardship of a wonderful world – as a divine practice over unquestioning dependence.

Who knows? It couldn’t hurt to try.

_________

*The Cornwell Alliance lists a number of signers with a scientific background. I have to admit, I feel the science teachers of these signers failed them. The most important lesson one should be taught in science is to be plastic with the evidence. We all have pet hypotheses, but all too often they eventually crash and burn. Even Newtonian physics can only go so far – falling to pieces on the very small or very fast scales. For a scientist to sign a declaration stating that the universe is set in one way, perfectly definable today, represents a lapse of understanding, that will look as silly in retrospect as a similar historical document would regarding the flatness of the earth or pivotal (and unchanging) position of the earth in space.

Book of the week: when trust breaks down, so does civilisation

I’m presently reading “Liars & outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive” by Bruce Schneier via my iPad Kindle app.

Written by a noted expert on internet and computer security, it is a wonderful and insightful meditation on trust, especially in the age of what Schneier calls our “hyper-connected society”.

Trust and the health of our society are linked:

“It’s what we call trust. Actually it’s what we call civilisation…”

“Society runs on trust” states Schneier and that failures in trust have become global problems.

He notes:

“Global production also means more production, but with it comes environmental pollution. If a company discharges lead into the atmosphere – or chlorofluorocarbons, or nitrogen oxide, or carbon dioxide – that company gets all the benefit of cheaper production costs, but the environmental costs fall on everybody else on the planet…”

When we fail to trust the tools that support our advanced industrial civilisation – the scientific method being one of the most critical – then we place a great deal at risk.

Conspiracy theories are symptoms of a break down of trust, a fracturing driven by fear, ideology and right-wing popularism.

Author interview here:

To pilot a planet: the future of the climate change debate

“This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” – Albert Einstein, 1920

I’d like to ask you – the reader – to conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine the children in your life and picture them as adults debating the reality of climate change. Now try to imagine their children doing the same thing. Then try to picture their children, and their children continuing that same debate. Its 2200 CE and future generations are locked into the same debate.

Does that seem at all plausible?

The intent of this thought experiment is to raise your gazes above the trench warfare that epitomizes today’s “climate debate”. Forget everything that seems so vitally important about the “debate” raging across blogs, YouTube and the opinion pages of the dying newspaper industry.

Ask yourself this question: “How long do you think this debate will continue?”

Years?

My own feeling: this debate will continue for centuries.

As long as there is an industrial civilisation we will be investigating, confirming, denying and debating anthropomorphic climate change.

Science controversies past and present

A recent paper in Physics Today contrasts the time lag between experts agreeing on “controversial” scientific theories and the considerable time lag before public consensus emerges. The author sees direct parallels between the climate change debate and past science “backlashes”:

“The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force…”

Thus we could speculate the climate debate will continue for decades, if not centuries. It will outlast most nation states now in existence – the very same nation states who will determine the course of history for future generations by their action – or inaction – on climate change.

Most of the individuals and organisations so prominent in the current debate will be forgotten, their existence barely noted in scant foot notes in some yet to be written history of climate change.

The irony is that we fight this debate as if month-to-month opinion polls are all that matter. In Australia, a carbon tax is about to come in effect on 1 July. It has proven enormously unpopular with the public while the conservative Opposition has been using it an opportunity to run an effective fear campaign: “We well be ruined, ruined by this tax!”

And while climate change scepticism may serve contrarians well enough in the short-term, the viability of our civilisation is being sacrificed for political gain.

The Great Awakening may not just be “around the corner”

Science has granted us with a view of the universe that often runs counter to cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe. Thus, for every major scientific theory one can find a counter-narrative.

Five centuries after Copernicus a 2004 survey found 20% of Americans in opposition to the idea the Earth revolves around the sun.

And yet it seems to me the scientific community, climate change activists, writers and bloggers are infected with an unrealistic optimism that “victory” is just around the corner. Most commentators propose it will take only a few more years before our civilisation undergoes the “great awakening”.

After all, it is an eminently sensible argument: surely “people” will get it, and demand action?

Many hope to see a global “mass mobilisation” with nations and individuals across the globe uniting to confront the enemy that is climate change. Commentators often cite the efforts of “The Greatest Generation” in defeating the Nazi’s and fascism during the Second World War as a parallel. I can understand this, the mythos that has been built around the Nazi defeat is great. Recall also the Germans and Japanese also mobilized for total war: effort does not ensure victory. 

More often than not those closest to the debate are projecting their own intellectual and emotional journey onto others.

Sadly, not everyone is “going to get it”.

Those of us blogging, reading and debating climate change are outliers: we are highly motivated to understand the science, politics and responses to climate change. For most individuals, it is an area of third, fourth or fifth level importance even if they accept the science.

What if I’m wrong, and there is a great awakening?

Still let’s challenge the above assertion: let us imagine the best of all possible worlds were we cap emissions and usher in a golden age of renewable energy.

Time to declare the debate over?

Should we avert disaster there will be those who will claim that as evidence climate change never was a problem: all those emissions taxes and support for clean energy was a wasted exercise to solve a non-existent problem. There will be groups wishing to wind back policy and legislative mechanisms in the same way conservatives are trying to wind back environmental legislation in Australia, the UK and the US.

“Surely not!” some of you would argue “Who would be so stupid?”

Well yes – we can be that stupid.

Consider the case of vaccination, a triumph for evidence based medicine.

It is still within living memory of many that that Polio, tuberculosis and Whooping cough killed thousands in the developed world. These diseases were almost completely eradicated in the developed world with the introduction of mass vaccination.

And yet we are now presented with the spectacle of millions of educated, middle to upper middle class parents conscientiously opposed to vaccination and reducing the populations “herd immunity” by not vaccinating their children.

These diseases – once thought banished – are now returning because there are those who doubt their effectiveness even when presented with the compelling evidence of children dying.

The point is these examples is this: we forgot mass horror and tragedy quickly, often within the span of a generation or two.

And even when we forget, we often refuse to believe facts that challenge our core values or beliefs.

It’s been over 150 years since Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species, and yet in public uncertainty about the validity about the science remains high from the United States (50% of the population) and around the globe. Those that “accept” evolution are very much in the minority.

America landed on the moon in 1969 and yet a staggering 10%-20% of the American population doubt this actually happened. If anyone had a vested interest in believing in American technological superiority it would be the average American citizen?

Strangely outlandish conspiracy theories have someone proven more compelling than actual reality.

How many Americans doubt their President was even born in the United States?

A recent survey of Australians show 10% believe the world will end in 2012 – a “New Age” belief that mangles and distorts Mayan cosmology despite the fact it has been debunked many times.

While one may be appalled by such willed ignorance, it is important to remember that denial is part of our nature and won’t go away even presented with the most compelling evidence.

The long debate

We cannot hope to quickly undo the damage to the atmosphere in a few short decades. It will take generations to both fix and manage the climate.

Now that we understand how CO2 impacts the atmosphere, we must forever abandon fossil fuels as an energy source.

The climate debate has only just begun.

And yet through all those long centuries that stretch before us, through the vicissitudes of wars, dark ages, renaissances and technological change we must hold onto the simple and fragile truth that the planet’s atmosphere must be managed intelligently and co-operatively by our species.

Our species made this mess; it is our species that has to manage it for all the long millennia ahead.

Climate change – the idea that we are altering the planet’s atmosphere – has profoundly changed how we view ourselves in the same manner Copernicus’s assertion of a heliocentric solar system unseated mankind from the centre of the universe.

It seems our fate as a species is tied up in trusting this wonderful construct we call “science”.

And yet to paraphrase Carl Sagan how very much it is like a fragile candle in the dark – a speck of light in a demon haunted world.

Tenacity, compassion and reverence for the truth: the accidental geo-engineers toolkit

Our role is not merely to debate the reality of climate change. I would suggest it is a far more expansive and nobler role than that.

We – the vanguard and the outliers of the debate – can be the mentors and teachers of the next generation. It falls to us to teach them resilience, tenacity and to trust the scientific method.

However, in addition to fostering scientific literacy we should teach the values of compassion and empathy.

Climate change has taught us the need to rebuild our industrial civilisation from the ground up in order to avert the suffering of billions fellow human beings.

Knowledge and compassion are inexorably linked – once cannot act without knowledge. Indeed, once you understand climate change, you are compelled to act. 

We can do more than bequest future generations a broken planet; we must also teach them to pilot the planet and our civilisation.

The generations that follow are accidental geo-engineers, a role neither asked for nor deserving. And while it may be impossible to forecast what our global civilisation will look like 1000 years from now, we can lay the seeds for its survival today.

Thus it falls to us to teach them the values that will guide them through the coming centuries of change: resilience in the face of adversity, compassion, empathy and a deep reverence for truth.

In essence, to lay the seeds of a humanist culture that recognises its place in the cosmos, appreciates the fragility of each individual life and our civilisation and fosters the hope we can guide it to better futures.

That is the legacy each of us holds in our hands, and has the power to pass on.

Embracing idiocy: creationism, climate change denial and birthers

Beyond help?

Not doubt the idea that a conservative world view often equates with lower “intelligence” is going to court controversy.

Calling climate change deniers, creationists and birthers “idiots” is not going to advance the debate.

But…

Coming via George Monbiot’s blog we have a recent study that shows a correlation between “lower” intelligence and conservatism.

“…drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”(5). Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think-tank’s, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.”

The end result is the creation of a counter-factual reality where the world is 5000 years old, evolution is a lie and climate change a conspiracy:

“….Don ‘t take my word for it. Listen to what two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been saying. Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”(6) The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society.”

Lofgren complains that “the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today”(7). The Republican party, with its “prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science” is appealing to what he calls the “low-information voter” or the “misinformation voter.” While most office holders probably don’t believe the “reactionary and paranoid claptrap” they peddle, “they cynically feed the worst instincts of their fearful and angry low-information political base”.

I do believe there is truth to the last assertion. Most of the material produced by the think tanks and deniers is propaganda cynically designed to deceive and to appeal to the prejudices of a conservative audience.

The original paper can be found here, titled “Bright minds and dark attitudes“.

It does note that there are many factors producing a conservative worldview:

“…Of course, prejudice cannot be explained solely by intelligence, ideology, or intergroup contact. Prejudice has complex origins, including personal factors, such as ignorance and a lack of empathy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008), and social factors, such as resource competition and intergroup hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Simply perusing the reader’s comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog tends to support the view that prejudice and a lack of empathy are characteristics Bolt and his readers…

The authors conclude:

“….our investigation establishes that cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice. Understanding the causes of intergroup bias is the first step toward ultimately addressing social inequalities and negativity toward outgroups. Exposing right-wing conservative ideology and intergroup contact as mechanisms through which personal intelligence may influence prejudice represents a fundamental advance in developing such an understanding.”

However, Monbiot is perhaps more scathing of “liberals” for being, well… too nice:

“…But when I survey this wreckage I wonder who the real idiots are. Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties, as Thomas Frank laments in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by what he calls “terminal niceness”(9). They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism.”

Intelligence by no means equates with political effectiveness, or with being “right”.

Sure, I’m comfortable calling out the idea that climate change is a socialist conspiracy as a ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy.

However I think idiocy is a universal trait that transcends politics.

Six aspects of denial: the common strategies of anti-science movements

How to win arguments against those scientists

I’ve recently been reading “The Making of the Fittest” by biologist Sean B. Carroll, a fascinating book on the evidence that DNA provides for evolution. For anyone with an interest in science it’s well worth a read.

However, chapter 9 really caught my attention. Titled “Seeing is believing” it details how opponents of science frame their arguments in an attempt to dismiss evidence that contradicts their world view.

Carroll discusses in-depth how the anti-vaccination movement and chiropractors use similar strategies in order to challenge the medical professions consensus on the efficacy of vaccines and the fact that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments. Each movement in their own way wages a “war” against the scientific establishment in order to protect their own ideological position.

He uses these examples as a perfect point of comparisons for the creationist movement.

And so, inspired by Carroll I’ll be introducing a new feature to this blog.

New framework for categorisation: six aspects of denial

I call these strategies the “Six Aspects of Denial”.

These are the most common non-scientific objections to the science of climate change. Actually, I will be so bold as to say these six “aspects” are pretty the only arguments the denial movement has: there is no science that supports their position.

I’ll be this framework to “tag” or categorise the type of arguments used by the denial movement in all future posts. At the end of each post I’ll nominate which aspect of denial I note, and offer a brief explanation. In this I’ll be taking a leaf from the wonderful work that John Cook has done at Skeptical Science. I’m hoping such a framework helps people identify the type of arguments used by the denial movement.

I hope this framework helps people understands the flawed logic behind many of the arguments used by the denial movement.

Six aspects of denial

  1. Doubt the science – This is the standard tactic of all denial movements. Creationists attack evolution and geology as they contradict the belief a god/s created the world just under 10,000 years ago. Alternative health practitioners claim the science that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of their treatments is at fault. On web sites, in books and on in internet forums they attack the science by cherry picking data, misrepresenting research or making bogus claims.
  2. Question the motives and integrity of scientists – This is the favourite tactic of the climate change denial movement. They claim the scientists are engaged in fraud, or are being pressured by governments to make up the results. They make up vast conspiracy theories in order to cast aspersions on the motives of climate scientists, physicists and biologists whose work confirms the reality of climate change. They use the “follow the money” argument, stating scientists are making up climate change in order to get research funding. All them are simply ad hominem attacks: playing the man.
  3. Magnify disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies – Again, one of the favourite tactics of the denial movement. The tiny percentage of actual scientists who express scepticism (Plimer, Lindzen) are dwarfed by the thousands of scientists who agree with the consensus that climate change is happening. But the denial movement exploits the media’s tendency to present “both sides” of the argument and thus help perpetrate the myth scientists are still debating climate change, when in fact there is near unanimous agreement.
  4. Exaggerate potential harm – This normally takes the form of “harm” the economy if the government intervenes. This is why opposition to cap-and-trade (or emissions trading schemes) are anathema to some parts of the denial movement. They also claim a climate change is an excuse to usher in a “world government” into existence. The denial movement plays up to these fears, playing on the anxiety that they will lose their freedoms (see below).
  5. Appeal to personal freedom – One of the great fears of the denial movements a loss freedom. Whether economic or political, they have a paranoid fear that someone (government, scientists, greens, politicians) are going to restrict their right to unlimited consumption or their freedom of speech. But reality is not a democracy. We don’t get to choose the truth about climate change, just as a popular debate about evolution decides the scientific evidence. The denial movement loves to frame this as a “debate” when none exists, claiming they have a right to doubt the science. Of course they do. But it does not mean they are correct.
  6. Acceptance repudiates key philosophy – For libertarians and free market advocates, climate change is a direct challenge to their assumption of unlimited growth. Any response to climate change will involve government intervention and global governance structures (such as a binding treaty to limit CO2 emissions). To such ideologues, it is axiomatic that such responses are “bad”. And yet the “market” can’t fix climate. Caught between having to accepting the science and what it entails and rejecting it in favour of their faith in the market, they reject the science. The same could be said of religious conservatives: like evolution, climate change is a direct challenge to the idea that a god/s has a governance role and is directly responsibly for managing the day-to-day affairs of the world. That a god/s would let climate change happen and not intervene is deeply challenging to the idea that a) they would allow such “evil” and b) the god/s is omnipotent.

Behind the Great Firewall of Denial: the conservative debate on “epistemic closure” and climate change

Behind the Great Wall of climate change denial

Following my post on the left/right divide, I can’t help but mention the current debate taking place within the US conservative movement. A few weeks ago Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute kicked off a fire storm of debate about how conservatism in the US is being increasingly dominated by “fantasy”:

“…One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall…”

Sanchez’s observations apply to a broad range of conservative movements that find themselves at odds with science. Creationists are desperate to ban the teaching of evolution in schools; climate change denialists are desperate to filter out or distort information that contradicts the safe, warm bubble of denial; conservative Christians feel under assault by far more secular culture and retreat into the bubble of “Christian media”.

Each, in turn rely on their own specially crafted and personalised media. Whether through outlets such as Fox News or restricting ones understanding of climate change to the writings of Andrew Bolt, each is an example of epistemic closure.

The New York Times picks up additional comments made by conservative “heavy weights” and intellectuals also joining in on the debate:

“…Soon conservatives across the board jumped into the debate. Jim Manzi, a contributing editor at National Review, wrote that Mr. Levin’s best seller, “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto” (Threshold Editions) was “awful,” and called the section on global warming a case for “willful ignorance,” and “an almost perfect example of epistemic closure.” Megan McArdle, an editor at The Atlantic, conceded that “conservatives are often voluntarily putting themselves in the same cocoon.”

Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush’s administrations, wrote that in the last few years, “epistemic closure” had become much worse among “the intelligentsia of the conservative movement.” He later added that the cream of the conservative research institutes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, had gone from presenting informed policy analyses to pumping out propaganda.”

The last point in particular is salient.

Many of think tanks have become guns for hire, mercenary agents for corporate interests that fund them. That the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation are singled out is no surprise. They are in the vanguard of climate change denial.

A recent review by another conservative attacks what he calls the “wingnuttery” of climate change denial. Jim Manzi, at the conservative National Review, tears apart the book Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, calling it a perfect example of “epistemic closure”:

“Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statists (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn…

…But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.”

One is reminded strongly reminded not to dismiss “conservatives” as fools, ill-informed or incapable of rational debate. It is the extreme fringe that seeks to drown out the voices of moderation. Both sides of the political divide have something to offer to the debate: the pragmatic tradition of Edmund Burke in understanding society as an organic entity and valuing institutions does not need to conflict with an intelligent response to climate change. Indeed, this is what rational conservatism is about.

Science is a four hundred year old tradition worth preserving. Currently it is under “attack” by ideologues. Our democratic institutions and traditions are worth conserving. Conservatism has traditionally been wary of  stoking of the “passions of the mob” via  ideology. The denial movement is ideologically based. It circumnavigates the scientific process and engages the worst aspects of peoples psychology: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The denial movement tears down societies trust in science; it provokes individuals to send scientists death threats; it questions Enlightenment values such as the use of evidence and reason in debate.

Climate change represents a major disruptive force in both political and economic terms. That elements of the conservative movement would ignore these threats is a tragedy.

Perhaps the best way to advance the debate is to reach out to those self proclaimed “liberals” and “conservatives” who understand and accept the science of global warming, and are prepared to debate the appropriate policy responses.

E pluribus unum: out of the many different voices and perspectives, we can formulate an appropriate response to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

On climate change we are a house divided: such houses must fall.

What needs to happen is a serious, mature debate about climate change and our response to the challenges it poses:

  • What is the role of government and business/industry in formulating policy responses?
  • What are the strategic, economic and political consequences of climate change and how do we address those challenges?
  • How to we balance economic “growth” and need to reduce CO2 emissions, manage population growth and resource usage?
  • What are the rights and responsibilities of the individuals in a world impacted by climate change?

These are serious conversations that need to happen: both challenging and intellectually engaging. Instead, we are still having to combat a vocal fringe whose influence in the debate is greatly disproportionate to their actual numbers. It is heartening to see both “liberals” and “conservatives” recognise a common foe.

What the denial movement has wrought: the collapse of public trust in science

Bad moon rising.

  

Quite a few blogs – and readers of this blog – have already made mention of the fascinating study “Social influences on paranormal belief: popular versus scientific support“.  

In short, the study looked out how individuals weighted the opinion of the majority versus the scientific consensus (in this case ESP). As suspected, it was found the more popular a view the more readily the individual would accept that consensus of the majority.  

However – shockingly – if the scientific community discounted the pseudo-scientific belief, and it was seen to have broad popular support, then individuals where more likely to reject the view of science. Here’s the abstract:  

“Paranormal claims enjoy relatively widespread popular support despite by definition being rejected by the scientific community. We propose that belief in paranormal claims is influenced by how popular those claims are as well as by dominant scientific views on the claims. We additionally propose that individuals will be most likely to be positively influenced by the views of science when claims are unpopular. An experimental study varied instructions to participants in a 2×2 design which informed participants that a particular paranormal belief/claim (ESP) was very popular or not and was rejected by science or not. Participants then watched a brief video that appeared to present evidence of ESP. As predicted, participants became more likely to believe in ESP when claims were more popular. Contrary to predictions, participants appeared to react against the views of science when evaluating claims, particularly when they believed those claims were unpopular. This finding may reflect decreasing trust in the institution of science…”  

Some of the observations are worth noting:  

“Although trust in science remains generally high, Americans are willing to depart from dominant views of science on particular issues such as evolution and global warming (Lang 2005). The 2009 Pew poll which found that trust in science remains high also found increasing scepticism about science. When asked America’s greatest achievement in the prior 50 years, 47% of Americans in 1999 listed a scientific achievement. In 2009, only 27% of American’s listed a scientific achievement in response to the same question. The growing acceptance of paranormal claims combined with a decreased trust in science and willingness to depart from science on particular issues leads us to predict that individuals will selectively adhere to dominant views of science…”  

It should be noted, that views most frequently rejected but the public those that directly contradict the world view of some religious conservatives (evolution) or represent a threat to specific industries (CO2 emitters).  

That both creationists and the denial movement are now working together and share the same tactics is no coincidence.  

There paper concludes:  

“Overall, our research demonstrated that individuals responded positively to perceptions of the popularity of paranormal claims when making decisions about belief in those claims. Results also suggest that participants reacted against the views of science in making decisions about paranormal claims. These findings may be due to individuals seeing paranormal belief as a matter of faith rather than evidence and therefore reacting against science. Alternatively, perhaps endorsement from peers provides a stronger source of legitimacy for paranormal beliefs than authorization from a higher authority. Or, the findings may result from a decreasing trust in the institution of science…”  

For both myself and other advocates of science and reason it highlights what we have been saying for some time: the collapse in trust of science has been manufactured and orchestrated by the denial movement.  

It is having an adverse effect not just on climate science, but all science.  

Both the denial movement and religious conservatives are waging a bi-partisan war on science. Alternative medicine directly challenges the efficacy of evidence based medicine. Today more people believe in pseudo-science than ever before.  

Individuals would prefer to surrender their reason to the beguiling siren song of astrology, “The Secret” and the “Da Vinci” code. How comforting it is to be told “The universe really does revolve around you!”.  

Thanks to poor media reporting on science we have a perfect storm of misinformation: counter knowledge masquerading as facts.  

Public opinion on climate change is important: without it our political responses are paralysed as individuals either pay no attention to the the reality of global warming, or alternatively become hostile to proposed solutions.  

Thanks to the likes of Andrew Bolt, Jo Nova, The Institute of Public Affairs and Ian Plimer both politicians and the public are being actively mislead.  

Reality is not a democracy – even if 90% of the population chooses to belief climate change is not happening, it does not stop the reality that scientists been observing for decades.  

However, our democracy is being corrupted by these agents of the “anti-enlightenment”. Like all anti-science movements they refuse to engage in the scientific debate because they have no evidence or research that supports their claims.  

Their goal is simple: stall our response to climate change by shaping public opinion.  

I lay this collpase in trust at the feet of the deniers. They are one of the chief members of the chorus that tells us “not to trust” the scientists.  

And what have their actions wrought?  

We have missed the opportunity to prevent climate change. We now have only have two courses of action: mitigation and adaption as the reality of climate change makes itself more manifest over the coming decades.  

Our children will come into a world fundamentally different from the one we grew up in, and that our parents and grand parents took for granted.  

All us – those alive today, and those who have only just entered the world – shall inherit the wind.

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