Frustrated Global Warmists (2011 Aug)

by Barry A. Liebling

Global warming alarmists are frustrated. True believers are wedded to the doctrine of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – the idea that human activity is causing the climate to get catastrophically hotter and that the remedy is a worldwide curtailment and regulation of economic activity. They are disappointed that their prospects for realizing their political goals have diminished. The number of Americans who are sympathetic to their view is smaller today than it was at its peak – sometime after Al Gore won an Academy Award and Nobel Prize for his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

Why, ask AGW proponents, are members of the public so resistant to seeing the world according to Gore? Many of them assume that members of the general public are ignorant, lack acumen, and are ill equipped to evaluate the “overwhelming evidence for AGW.” Ronald Baily of Reason Magazine has reported on a new study by the Cultural Cognition Project that sheds some light on this issue.

An academic group of AGW enthusiasts, headed by Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School, surveyed 1,540 adults. The investigators categorized the participants based on their facility with science and their general values. To assess their knowledge of science participants completed a multiple choice test that measured their “science literacy” and “numeracy.” Their values were measured based on their responses to questions along the dimensions of Individualism-Communitarianism and Hierarchy-Egalitarianism.

The key question of the survey is “How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?” Participants indicated their opinion on an eleven-point scale where the end points were “no risk” and “extreme risk.” Note well that the investigators use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it is politically preferred by true believers. “Climate change” is almost impossible to disprove. While the climate may or may not be getting warmer, it is certainly changing.

The results of the survey refute the hypothesis that ordinary people do not embrace the AGW doctrine because they lack the skill to judge scientific issues. Participants who score higher on science and numeracy are slightly less likely to view climate change as an extreme risk.

Even more interesting is how values relate to perceived risk. Americans who score high on individualism and hierarchy are less likely to worry about the danger of climate change than are those who score high on communitarianism and egalitarianism. The differences between individualists and the communitarians become even greater among those who have above average reasoning skills. Science-savvy individualists have the lowest perceived risk score while communitarians who are good at science have the highest.

What is the proper interpretation of the results? The authors argue that people seek out information that supports the beliefs of the social group to which they belong. Individualists are suspicious of climate change doctrine because it presents a rationale for curtailing activities they value – such as personal responsibility and free enterprise. By contrast, communitarians are uncomfortable with unfettered commerce, inequality of economic outcomes, and a society that is not closely supervised by an omnipresent government – so they evaluate the AGW position as being conducive to their personal goals and in sync with those in their social circle. Thus, according to the authors, because individualists and communitarians have a different sense of life and need to stay in good standing with their peers they are unable to agree on the science of climate change.

Surely world-view does influence the way someone will evaluate a scientific claim. Individualists have a cognitive style that is distinctive from that of communitarians. But it does not follow that they cannot come to the same conclusions about matters of scientific fact. The Cultural Cognition Project investigators state in their paper that people generally do reach consensus on scientific issues and that “bitter public disputes over science are in fact the exception rather than the rule.” So what is so special about “climate change?”

It is significant that the authors do not even consider the most obvious answer. The simplest explanation is that evidence for AGW is not conclusive, that global warming alarmist scientists have not proved their case, and that the debate – contrary to the authors’ wishes – has not been resolved in their favor.

In scientific affairs strong evidence and sound reasoning eventually overpower any biases associated with membership in a social group. Galileo and his supporters defending heliocentrism were vastly outnumbered by antagonists who insisted that the sun circled the earth. In spite of any social pressure, the body of irrefutable facts and valid theory eventually triumphed.

More recently, establishment scientists in the Soviet Union were adamant supporters of Lysenko’s theory of heritability of acquired characteristics – a doctrine that contradicts modern genetics. Without giving up their membership in the Communist Party, Soviet scientists abandoned Lysenkoism when it became clear that it was false.

Do the authors of the Cultural Cognition Project take their own interpretation seriously? Do they believe that people are driven to interpret “climate change” issues according to the norms of the social group they belong to? If so, how do they propose getting to the real truth?

They assert the solution to the problem is to consider two levels of rationality. The first is the individual level which consists of each person making judgements and decisions to serve her own needs. The second “perspective sees society as the agent and maximization of the welfare of its members as the goal (emphasis in original).” According to the authors, society is rational when its “citizens uniformly and rapidly converge in their recognition of (what) the best available scientific evidence reveals about risk and risk abatement. Cognitive dynamics that systematically impede such convergence are, from the point of view of such a society, a form of irrationality.”

Notice what is accomplished when the authors bring in the notion of “society as agent.” They are asserting that a fictitious entity – society – trumps individual judgements. Of course, the authors see themselves as the legitimate interpreters and agents of what “society truly needs.” They are calling for total and immediate conformity to the “best evidence” – which is, as far as the investigators are concerned, the doctrine of AGW. This is the strict party line of a devoted communitarian. And the authors apparently see no irony when they propose that this is the way to resolve the conflict between communitarians and individualists.

It appears that by invoking the specter of “society as agent” the authors of the Cultural Cognition Project have fallen into a trap of their own making. If being a member of a social group makes it hard to get to the real truth how are the academic experts able to exempt themselves? If they can rise above the constraints of group membership then so can everyone else. No wonder they’re so frustrated.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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