Friday, September 23, 2016

How climate change deniers can believe so many "impossible things"

There's an interesting, if slightly patronizing, article in today's Guardian about something I had often wondered about, namely how climate science deniers are able to accept so many impossible things at once.
For instance, some will say that statistics show that global warming stopped in 1998 (the so-called "Pause" - see an earlier entry of mine on the subject), but then claim that statistics from suspect agencies like NASA are entirely unreliable. Or they will blithely assert that global temperatures and CO2 levels are not actually causally related, but then, in the next breath, claim that CO2 is what keeps out planet warm and livable.
There are many such examples out there. One that has suddenly become news in the last day or two is the argument of the US Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, whose justification for not acting now on climate change is that, in a few billion years time, the sun is going to grow into a red giant and envelop the earth anyway! Mr. Johnson, presumably an intelligent person, must know that this snippet of real science does not have any relevance at all to contemporary climate change policy, but he is nevertheless willing to put it out there.
Anyway, a new paper published in Synthese (the International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science - yes, there is such a thing) seeks to find a psychological and philosophical reason for such contrary views. The paper is playfully entitled "The Alice in Wonderland mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism" after the White Queen in that book, who exclaims at one point, "Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." But its content and import is entirely serious.
The authors conclude that this kind of "incoherence" (a technical term) can exist in the minds of climate change deniers due to two main concepts: "conspiracist ideation" and "identity-protective cognition". Conspiracist ideation, or conspiratorial thinking, refers to the tendency of certain people to easily entertain suggestions of a conspiratorial nature (what might, in non-technical jargon, be called "gullibility"). Identity-protective cognition, on the other hand, is the idea that some individuals tend to selectively credit and dismiss scientific theories or asserted dangers in a manner that supports their own preferred form of social organization or political beliefs. Thus, in this case, some people will dismiss the scientific consensus on man-made global warming because to accept it would necessitate increased levels of regulation, which challenges their identity as free-market advocates. So strong and so deeply-entrenched is this political value belief that these people are willing to disbelieve and dismiss clear scientific evidence, and even to risk ridicule, rather than to accept the alternative.
It all kind of makes sense, but it doesn't really help us in any way to get past the problem.

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