Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climate Change: denial, trust and ideology

Suppose you, as I, believe in human-created climate change, namely, in increasing temperatures caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels.

Why do you do so? What warrants that belief?

Well, you might be tempted to answer, something like the following: ‘Science. I believe that through its time-tested methods science can produce true claims about the world.’

But that isn’t really the full answer is it? Because it leaves something pivotal out of the equation. Trust.

If you are like me (that is, you are not a professional climatologist), you believe in climate change not merely because you have a general, sensible faith in the scientific method, but also because you trust what is declared to be true by the overwhelming majority of scientists who have examined the issue in detail over a considerable period of time. These are two different beliefs, and it is altogether possible to hold the first without holding the second. I’ll come to why in a moment.

But first, you might object that your belief isn’t about trust at all. After all, you know the science. The high levels of CO2 (and some other carbon-based molecules) in the atmosphere allow the sun’s energy in, but trap it from coming out. Net result, the earth heats up. If anyone is sceptical about the basic mechanism, they’re welcome to wind up the windows on their car on a hot day and sit inside it for an hour or two. Same principle at work. See how long they can retain their scepticism as the temperature pushes skyward (so to speak).

But that belief in the potency of the basic mechanism, on its own, is plainly insufficient. For knowing and accepting the basic mechanism cannot justify a belief that human-induced climate change is in fact happening. After all, it could be that humans are simply not adding nearly enough carbon to the atmosphere to get a result, or there may be any one of a wide number of counter-forces at work, that push the system back to equilibrium. If you doubt the truth of both these two possibilities, then I submit you do so not because you have read and evaluated all of the complicated research papers involved, for and against, but because you trust the many scientists who have read all those papers or did the research themselves. If that’s right, then you, like me, believe in human-created climate change not merely because you believe in science but also because you trust a particular cohort of people.

In other words, you believe not only in science, but in other people. Your beliefs are not only scientific and climatological; they are also sociological.

And this brings me to the nub of what I want to talk about. It is often observed that people from the right-wing side of politics tend to be much more likely to be climate change ‘deniers’. Certainly that is my experience (though, of course, there are notable exceptions). And on the basis of this observed correlation between libertarianism and denialism, commentators tend to complain about a world where people allow their political values to distort their beliefs about fact.

After all, aren’t these climate-change deniers committing a straightforward fallacy? There are value judgments and there are descriptive facts. Merely possessing values on one side of the political spectrum should not make a person—if they are reasoning appropriately—any more likely to believe an objective scientific fact. The latter is purely a matter of reason and the proper weighing of empirical evidence, none of which should be infected by prior political commitments.

The common diagnosis offered for why this fallacy occurs (in my experience) is that the right wing climate-change deniers have realised that if climate change is true, then, a) all their productive capitalist enterprises over the years have caused a terrible catastrophe, and, b) they need now to stop doing what they have been doing previously. But these right-wing types do not want to feel badly about themselves and their peers, so they resist believing the first point (a). And they do not want to stop making oodles of money, so they resist believing the second point (b). And so the story goes. These powerful, self-interested motives to resist belief explain why we see advocates of the political right denying the fact about climate change.

I daresay there are at least some cases where that is exactly what is happening. But there is another explanation that is also worth consideration.

It begins with a very general view about human nature, namely, that people are very self-interested. People may tell you they are altruistic and idealistic, but the grim fact is that (this view of human nature declares) the overwhelming majority of people, the overwhelming majority of the time, are in it for themselves and for their nearest and dearest. You can perhaps convince them to avoid violence, but anything more than that is in the end asking too much. This is a view of human nature with a substantial philosophical pedigree--it can be found in Machiavelli, Hobbes and Montesquieu, just to name a few.

From this perspective, a libertarian free market can seem pretty appealing. For one thing, the rule of the market is caveat emptor—buyer beware—which means that people who want to make money need to produce a decent product and preserve their reputation for doing so. As Adam Smith said, we rely on the baker’s self-interest, rather than his beneficence, in our expectations about the quality and reliability of his product. The market works because it aligns people’s incentives such that the self-interested thing to do is also one that improves the situation of others. It may not do so perfectly, but it is the least-bad political system open to such fallen creatures as we. Of course, there is the tricky matter of ensuring the rule of law governs, and not anarchy. The issue is vexing on the view of human nature we are speaking of here, because those policing and ruling are just as self-interested as everybody else. Indeed, probably more so. Power corrupts, after all. But at least the state required is as minimal as possible, lessening the incentives for evil people to use it as a mechanism for expanding their own passions and prejudices. When it comes to government, we use mechanisms such as democratic accountability, the separation of powers, and institutional checks and balances, to try to minimize the inevitable damage done by nakedly self-interested actors possessing political power.

In sum, if we believe that human beings are for the most part selfish, then a free market and minimal government might be the best system we can reasonably hope for. Call the people who believe this ‘cynical libertarians’ (obviously there are other reasons one might be a libertarian).

Cynical libertarians distrust people in general, and people in power in particular. They distrust bureaucracies because they think bureaucrats only rarely (when there is very powerful oversight) can be trusted to do the right thing. Bureaucrats are more liable to work to ensure they remain employed and well-paid, which might mean engaging in turf wars, exacerbating the problem they were meant to fix, expanding their responsibilities while undermining their accountability, and in general spending more time rising the ranks than actually doing anything useful. Remind you of any politicians you know?

And cynical libertarians of course can find ample evidence of this type of self-interested belief in the history of science. Sometimes ordinary people seem to forget the howlers that science has thrown up from time to time—‘N rays’ are a hilariously apt example, where patriotic French scientists managed to convince themselves of all sorts of nonsense to further their own ambitions and national pride. To be sure, science eventually sorts these things out, but there is little doubt it can take itself down blind paths for a considerable period of time if there is enough institutional reward for its doing so.

What has this got to do with climate change?

Simply this. Cynical libertarians don’t believe scientists on this matter because they don’t trust them. The reason they don’t trust them is for the reason we have been exploring—people are self-interested and they will do the right thing only when they have a substantial self-interest in doing so. But the motivation the cynical libertarians perceive for these scientists is not that they will be rewarded for performing an objective analysis and report of the facts. If climate change is believed to be true, then climatology (and a host of related disciplines) as an institution will be massively resourced, funded and respected. If climate change is accepted, then climatology is no longer ‘merely academic’. It is not even something that might be handy to know about. To the contrary, climatology is suddenly a life-or-death matter and it must be resourced and respected as such. Research institutions must be created, staffed and funded. New jobs, international conferences and PhD positions will be created. Politicians, UN officials and journalists now hang on the words of those reporting the latest evidence. In a word, climatology has become important. (If only philosophy and ethics were so lucky...)

Cynical libertarians will observe that this creates a massive incentive to nuance the evidence at every single juncture, by every single actor involved. It might even create a system of group-think, where every actor involved in an institution all have a vested interest to think in a particular way, with the result that they wind up speaking in an echo chamber—every interaction ratifies their belief. It might even create a process where institutional actors use every means at their disposal to guard their own theories against all opposing arguments and evidence. This is why the Climategate scandal was seen as such an issue by this type of climate deniers (I would link to the Wikipedia entry for Climategate here—except of course that Wikepedia notoriously does not have one! Who’s in denial now?). Climategate was an example of exactly the processes the cynical libertarians expect to see, given their views on human nature and motivation.

And all this goes doubly so for the now-sizable bureaucracy bulwarking and resourcing these scientists. If climate change was shown to be false, it is not that some of these people would merely lose their jobs—entire government departments would shut down, entire ministries! This is turf war with a vengeance.

So, with all that in mind, how might we argue with or engage these cynical libertarian climate deniers? For the point I have been trying to make is that these are rational people who have rational reasons for their beliefs—it is not as if they are simply being bloody-minded or are ideologically blinded.

The first thing to note is that the simple accumulation of more and more evidence by the same scientists is unlikely to persuade the cynical libertarian. The institutional incentives are if anything becoming increasingly more powerful, not less. So there's no point in enthusing about a new 'consenus' among scientists about the mounting evidence for grave climate change. To the cynical libertarian, this is all just more of the same.

It’s also unlikely we can just wait until even blind Freddy can see that things really are patently heating up. There will be enough local variation that resolute scepticism will remain possible for a considerable period of time, and heat sinks, especially the ocean, will absorb (but of course not dissipate) much of the increased heat energy accumulated by our planet.

Still, a few avenues are possible.

A first method is draw attention to those scientists who accept climate change but do not have a vested interest in doing so. My understanding is that many scientists in industry fall into this category, and it seems implausible to think that their judgments on this issue are being distorted by self-interest. Their beliefs should be taken seriously.

A similar story is true of those who have long been critical of exaggerated environmental predictions, but who accept the reality and the importance of climate change—Bjorn Lomborg, the ‘sceptical environmentalist’, is a good example here. He made a career out of suspicion of environmental histrionics, but he is not in denial about climate change. Yet in terms of personal incentives, he would surely have much to gain from adopting a position of complete denial, and it is telling that he did not.

It might also be worth raising the cynical libertarian’s awareness that she needs to guard against falling victim to the same belief mechanism herself that she locates in others. She may be telling herself that she disbelieves others because of their incentives to think one way rather than another, but it may well be that she herself has incentives (pecuniary, social and ideological) to be sceptical in this case. It is a basic failure of rationality to forget that one is oneself a human being, capable of all the same mistakes and biases that we regularly attribute to other human beings.

But perhaps the most fruitful message to take away is simply that some climate deniers may be operating on a rational basis, and are therefore open to rational argument and evidence. Treating them as irrational or ideologically blind will only fuel their scepticism. If we treat their beliefs seriously, then we can start deliberately accumulating the type of evidence and argument that they will take as probative. 

And that could be a small but significant victory in the long process of moving us all to a sustainable way of life.


William Ferguson said...

Insightful as always Hugh.

Though a study I read recently (as I recall it was well credentialed but I can't seem to find it now) showed that on the left of politics an increase in education was correlated with an increase in acceptance of human induced climate change, but on the right of politics there was no correlation with education.

And there is always this charmer from the UK's daily mail that basically says a right wing ideology is a cop out by those with low intellect because it makes them feel safe

But that does tie into another study that showed a right wing perspective is strongly correlated with a higher fear response to graphic images or scenarios.

The human mind is weird. I'll just be concerned if the AIs show the same irrational behaviours.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for that. Interesting points all.

I suppose the reasoning I describe in the post actually could account for the results of the study into education you raise. After all, if someone is cynical about the motives for all climatologists then they would view any ‘education’ as likely to be simply more of the same biased evidence. To them, it would make as much sense as someone checking the veracity of a newspaper report by buying another copy of the same newspaper (to purloin one of Wittgenstein’s examples). Their cynicism is systemic, not particular, and education will only work if it engages with the source of their scepticism—namely, the incentives structures of the scientists in question.

Still, it would be stretching things to say that this is the whole story for the point you raise. I think there are very different reasons for people to be right-wing. Conservatives and libertarians, for example, can be very different sorts of people with very different characters and reasons. (The other studies you mention seem to me to have little appreciation of this fact, but that’s another story.) So in some cases I agree that the resistance to education might be a function of fear, or inability to understand, or ideological bias, and not a carefully-thought-through pessimism about human motivations in institutional settings.

Michael Cowley said...

Some interesting thoughts Hugh. I'd have thought though that someone who falls into your cynical libertarian category but is intellectually honest would be more like Lomborg - more accepting of the science, but more skeptical of many of the proposed solutions. As someone with sympathies in this direction,

I know I personally don't see much reason to believe that self-interest creates a significant skew in the science, but plenty of reason to see self-interest contaminating many proposals for solutions. Of course once proposals for solutions are made concrete they enter the political realm and are subject to lots of other contaminants. But I suspect that a good way to build support would be to concentrate more on ensuring the proposals to deal with the problem have a rational basis. Lomborg, while by no means perfect, at least makes a good effort in this direction, and should be given much more credit than he gets from the crowd that thinks Earth Hour is much more than a gesture.

Michael Cowley said...

To be clear, I think anyone who is intellectually honest should accept the general case that anthropogenic climate change is real and a real problem. I think there is much more open ground on the question of whether and how to address it individually or collectively.

Hugh Breakey said...

Thanks Michael.
That's a good point, and something I didn't think about much. Doubtless you are correct that the major way political commitments play a role in this domain is in the proposals about what to do in response to anthropogenic climate change, rather than the belief in it. And here too, these value judgements will be interwoven with descriptive views on what is possible, given particular theories of human nature. And as occurs in the question I confront in the post, different answers are bound to be given by those suspicious of centralized power and cynical about what can be expected of ordinary human beings. So on this question as well, it can be difficult to tease out where political ideology ends and empirical views of social existence begins.