Ben Pile: Environmentalism’s Amoral Disorder

From the pulpit at the Church of Crass Generalisations and Poorly Concealed Prejudice, Andrew Brown of the Guardian delivered these words on Tuesday:

There’s a first class article in Nature this week on the reasons Americans reject the science of climate change. It has wider implications for a lot of the ways in which we think and talk about rationality.

Hmm. ‘Americans reject the science of climate change’? All of them? Or just some of them in particular?

The article linked to by Brownwas authored by Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. Kahan tries to explain why it is that controversy persists in the climate debate. People’s ‘reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment’, he says. In some senses, this is a refreshing break from the ‘deficit’ model of the climate debate: that stupid politicians are in hock to the material desires and base instincts of the stupid, fecund, consuming public. The problem is not too few powers of reason on the public’s behalf, but too much.

The reason the debate is polarised, says Kahan, is that people are very good at ‘filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers’. In other words, you believe what your mates believe, because to do otherwise would mean to commit to a life of loneliness… or something. Scepticism of climate change, then, is perfectly rational, from the point of view of sustaining your social network. The problem begins, on Kahan’s view, when the ‘communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings’.

Meanings like ‘denier’, perhaps?

Climate Resistance

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6 responses to “Ben Pile: Environmentalism’s Amoral Disorder

  1. “The problem is not too few powers of reason on the public’s behalf, but too much.”

    If you can call that a “problem.” What increasing numbers of Americans have insisted upon is the presentation of lucidly articulated proof – as in openly disseminated verifiable evidence that global climate change is genuinely anthropogenic (by way of CO2 greenhouse gas effect), that such change is proven beyond all doubt to be adverse (remember the Medieval Warm climate optimum?), and that reductions in the output of man-made CO2 will have any goddam effect on the global climate whatsoever.

    These American people demand extraordinary proof before they’ll agree to suffer extraordinary costs.

    And bear in mind that more than 70 million of those Americans own firearms.

  2. “In other words, you believe what your mates believe, because to do otherwise would mean to commit to a life of loneliness… or something”

    There’s a sword that cuts both ways. Given the ostracism faced by any climate scientist, or, indeed scientist, from the global warming community, I would suspect that the same is true for any person of science who ponders skepticism.

  3. “The problem begins, on Kahan’s view, when the ‘communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings’.”

    It’s a short step from here to taking 1st Amendment
    rights from skeptics.

  4. Kahan is doing what most bullies do when they sense the crowd might be turning on them: they take up the mantle of the victim. I’m the one being persecuted, they claim, appealing to the crowd for the right to self defense. This is an old trick, and one which I think most people can see through.

  5. Kahan is completely right, even though his observation is far from new. Consider the difference between a patriot and a traitor.

    If you want to know if someone is guilty of treason, you don’t ask all the countries in the world to help. You ask the local patriots.

    Sorry to be so cynical.

  6. This isn’t new. Intelligence is correlated with the ability to find evidence to support your position and a resistence to changing your mind.

    His thesis assumes that people choose the majority political opinions in order to avoid being ostracized, but politics is like religion and sex- most people don’t talk about it in public. In fact given that half the population doesn’t even bother to vote, I don’t think people’s private opinions would be so heavily affected by fear of social disapproval.

    Alternative theory- people’s belief in climate change is based on relative status. Wealthy and urban individuals will be least affected by such measures as energy and transportation costs make up a relatively small slice of their spending. Belief in climate change signals you belong to these high status groups.

    People who are poorer or rural will be more effected by rising transportation and energy costs and are more interested in meeting their bills than signaling sophistication.

    Humorously helping poor people is a substantially more effecient use of money to help people than dealing with climate change, but sadly 1) isn’t cool enough, 2) requires sacrifice, 3) requires helping people who are unpleasent (South Africa is no 1 in rapes, Egypt has 95% female genital mutilation rate, Rwanda had a genocide in living memory) and 4) is open ended- no matter how much you give, you can still give more and save more lives.

    So rather than give to try to save some people from malaria and deal with the knowledge if you gave just a bit more you could have saved another life, you can be part of the grand effort to stop global warming (a wonderful cause with zero downside!). You can even redefine acceptable energy (hydroelectric and nuclear don’t get to count anymore) so you can blame conservatives for the fact the ‘alternatives’ you have proposed don’t work.

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