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?
Kahan’s theory is that people don’t make decisions about the facts in front of them, but are motivated by something else. He begins by challenging the theory that people are too stupid to understand the science, but ends up back in the same place. Curiously, he passes over the research that is most likely to take him in the right direction…
Social-science research indicates that people with different cultural values — individualists compared with egalitarians, for example — disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is.
… to go on to describe instead some superficially empirical test which bears out the idea that even in the face of unimpeachable expertise, people will return to the prejudices of the group to which they belong:
People with different values draw different inferences from the same evidence. Present them with a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, for example, and they will disagree on whether he really is an ‘expert’, depending on whether his view matches the dominant view of their cultural group (D. M. Kahan et al. J. Risk Res. 14, 147–174; 2011).
But the trouble for social science theorists is that you don’t need to be one of them to understand why this is. There are very good reasons why people with ‘different cultural values’ may end up diverging on the interpretation of evidence, as I’ve described here before. In brief: if you hold with a view that nature is in a permanent state of fragile balance and that human society is dependent on that balance, you will be more nervous of change in the natural environment than someone who believes that humans (especially in industrial society) are more self-dependent and robust. For entirely contingent reasons, these two positions roughly correspond to contemporary political trends that are nominatively/superficially ‘egalitarian’ and ‘individualistic’. (This idea of such a distinction is itself a bit of a red herring, but that is another blog post.)
The even bigger mistake is putting the social-group cart before the belief horse. No doubt some values are socially-transmitted. But it is primarily people’s interests which determine what circles they move in, not vice versa. Except in the most parochial of places, we — by which I mean people who are sufficiently privileged to take a view on the climate change debate — encounter sufficient diversity of opinion that few could argue that they didn’t have the opportunity to reflect their change of mind with a change of social group, albeit slowly. Things may be different for Kahan, perhaps, but I remain friends with the people who think I’m absolutely insanely wrong about environmental politics. Good friends. And our continued friendship is not predicated on our agreement about climate change.
So much pseudo-scientific social theory that passes for academic research is transparently intended to deny that people are capable of reason, or that they reason in ways that they shouldn’t. And in the process, these researchers cannot help but reveal that what they attempt to reveal in the wider public is much more true of the academy. Who would dare challenge environmentalism on the campus dominated by seemingly liberal, progressive thought? More pertinently, perhaps: who would dare to suggest that the wider public possessed sufficient faculties that the Faculty itself is is in many cases (but not all, of course) redundant, if not an actual toxic force in today’s, post-democratic politics? Perhaps people presented with ‘a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences’ aren’t inclined to bow and scrape before him, because the PhD scientist has a tendency to undermine his new acquaintance’s faculties, to say that they are lacking, and that a study of them reveal patterns of thought which are irrational and thus not capable of making decisions. The feeling is surely mutual. Kahan should worry as much less about science communication as he counsels that people should worry less about the public’s intellectual deficit; he should worry about what the science of reducing people in this way — and for what ends — says about climate ‘science’.
Back to Brown, who it is now clear was wrong to say that Kahan says anything particular to Americans in general, or American sceptics in particular. And even if Kahan had explained the mechanics of some kind of ‘group think’ at the social level, it would equally apply to environmentalists. Brown believes that,
It will take the kind of conformism and sense of moral obligation offered by religious thought and ritual if we are to save the planet
Brown continues to try to distance himself from the people-are-stupid account of scepticism in the same way Kahan does. The argument again being that individuals are making ‘rational’ decisions, but rationalising on a different basis — their social survival, rather than on the basis of the putative facts of climate science. But this leaves Brown and Kahan in a relativistic bind: if values and the basis for rational decisions are dependent on social context, what does that say about the content of Kahan and Brown’s own reasoning? If they want to sustain the idea that they have the ‘correct’ understanding of ‘the science’, then they cannot say that the sceptics are capable of reason. One can’t say that finding an answer of 5 for the question ‘what is 2 plus 2’ is ‘rational’, on the basis that someone’s friends and family believe the answer to be 5, and that he wants to keep his friendships. Such a move is putting something beforereason. Brown fudges an answer:
One explanation is that we have a problem of propaganda: the lobbyist’s rule that for every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD makes it easy for malevolent forces to blind the world with bullshit.
But saying that people can pick and choose their experts only defers the problem so far: it still suggests that one group of people with a particular belief are more vulnerable to ‘propaganda’ than another, their rational faculties being less capable of detecting it. And it is in the following passage that we discover that Brown really is vulnerable to something…
Personal experience is not infinitely malleable. Perhaps if there were anything we could do about the weather, our opinions of it would be modified by the effects we saw our actions having. But there isn’t. The weather is uncontrollable and this is even more true of climate change. What you or I do as individuals makes no difference to global warming. Even what the whole of the UK does won’t change much.
These are some curious ideas that Brown is putting forward. The weather may or may not be controllable, and ‘personal experience’ may not be ‘infinitely malleable’, whatever that means. Brown is trying not to say that weather and climate change, being forces of nature, are inevitable, whereas people can be more easily controlled. Spot the deliberate mistake in Brown’s next passage:
The kind of changes in consumption needed to make a real difference to our carbon output would require multinational action at government level.
‘Multinational action’ is above the ‘government level’. It is intergovernmental, or supranational. Or in other words, it is a new layer of governance. And the basis for this new layer of governance is, as Brown says:
… democratic governments act from perceived self-interest even more than individual voters do. Since their actions are consistently directed to an end, an economist could call them rational. Both voters and governments, in ignoring the very painful adjustments that would be needed to diminish climate change, are definitely working to a utility function. They want to minimise their own unpopularity and will see the world in ways that make their actions seem rational. In general the right has understood this better than the left (or do I say this because the misdeeds of the other side are so much more apparent?).
The main problem for Brown here is that governments — especially the UK’s — has responded to a political consensus on the climate which is not shared by the public. The UK and EU’s policies do not reflect popular will. That’s not to say that there is substantial opposition to them (yet), but that these governments were able to create these policies, in spite of the public. Brown’s argument is not a challenge to the way politics is being done, but a ringing endorsement of it.
Brown takes Kahan’s observation that social context and attitudes towards the environment are somehow/somewhat correlated, to make an attack on democracy. Just as individuals are vulnerable to what their peers think, democratic governments are vulnerable to what the aggregate of all peer-groups believe. Rationality being so malleable and fickle, democracy is therefore not up to the task of coping with material reality — climate change. It was the historic left which made the arguments for the expansion of democratic control in the past, against traditional political orders, to allow people to make political decisions precisely in their own interests. Brown now eschews the idea that reason is what makes the the individual capable of giving government a mandate through democratic processes, and asks for democracy to be suspended, and for governance to be legitimised instead on the basis of environmental catastrophe. Even if it were true that the political right’s ‘misdeeds’ in corrupting democracy ‘are so much more apparent’, contempt for the principle of democratic government is contempt for the demos, and vice versa. It’s the proles that Brown fears most.
What religious thought – and ritual – can supply is the two things absent from normative consumer liberalism. The first is a belief that the choice between ends is not arbitrary or wholly personal: that there are moral facts of the matter; that saving as much of humanity as possible is an obligation on all of us, and that this is actually true, and not just a matter of preference.
Environmental catastrophe is, I’ve argued here before, a cheap moral realism. Brown wants there to be ‘moral facts of the matter’, but doesn’t realise that he has shot himself in both feet on his quest to find shared values to which we would all be obedient. First, his own relativistic meandering left him lame as he undermined the idea that individuals are capable of reason at all — we’d rather be friends with each other. And then, hopping on one foot, he fell over when he revealed that rather than allowing people to hold with the values they do share, he wants a greater authority to be sovereign. The idea that there is a ‘normative consumer liberalism’ which makes individuals’ ends sovereign is in total contradiction with the idea that people’s views of the world are formed, or mediated by their peers. Brown continues…
The second is the kind of conformism, reinforced by all kinds of social ritual, large and small, which will enforce the social discipline needed to carry societies through some pretty ghastly changes. Let’s face it, any adjustment to an ecologically sustainable standard of living is going to be a lot nastier than anything Greece is going through now. It will need considerable determination and solidarity.
Greens for so long have promised that environmental asceticism, and the transition towards it would not just be a joyful process of transcendence in which our lives would be given meaning and authenticity, it need not even be marked by austerity. Now even that promise has faded. It will be ‘ghastly’, admits Brown. And this process towards the ghastly needs a religion, if not to police the thoughts of the individuals who absorb it freely, then to legitimise the actual policing of the actions of those who do not.
It’s hard not to wonder whose side Brown is even on. Keep writing, Andrew.
But something I’ve wondered much more about than that, is whether the desire for austerity, for conformity, and for ‘shared’ values is owed much less to what ‘science says’, than for these things as ends in themselves…
The basic mechanism of social conformism is not so much policing behaviour – that needs only outrage – but policing emotion: the kind of second-order enforcement of conformity where my failure to feel outrage becomes itself a matter for your outrage. There’s plenty of that around today.
… After all, the problem for environmentalists — especially outraged Guardian hacks — has been sharing their outrage. Environmentalism remains an elite preoccupation. And so it is no surprise that environmentalists’ ideas are fantasies that reflect a desire for elite forms of political and social organisation, above the reach of the hoi-polloi. The hoi-polloi — the demos — has failed to respond to environmentalism’s prophets, and so environmental mythology has developed to account for this disobedience. On the environmentalists view, the minds of individuals have been captured, and thus, being captured means they can be recaptured — it’s just a matter of taking control of the right social and political institutions, or creating new ones, such that families and social acquaintances no longer allow the ‘wrong’ values to contaminate ‘rational’ thought — and even if it did, it wouldn’t make any difference.
This is all in contrast to the view that individuals can be persuaded through reason, by appealing to people’s rational faculties. And it is in contrast to the view than people’s values, beliefs, and rational processes can be understood simply by asking people what they think and why they think it. Kahan and Brown then speculate as to what it is that ‘really’ drives the formation of opinions and beliefs about the world, as though individuals had nothing to do with it. Brown’s desire for a ‘new moral order’ belies the vacuum in his own moral perspective. It is in fact terror at the possibility of a moral order existing outside of his own control. ‘Science’ is a surrogate moral framework in an otherwise amoral, hollow perspective, held by people who, in spite of their vacuity, want to be able to assert control, in lieu of any basis on which their influence could be legitimised. ‘Science’ is (ab)used first to say ‘do this or die’, and then is used to explain why people don’t respond to such transparent moral blackmail. The thing that doesn’t seem to have occurred to environmentalists is that this isn’t science at all, and that this fact is as plain as day to everyone else.