A taxonomy of delusion
At this point in the debate over climate change, I doubt that any standard process of argument (reference to scientific research, analysis of data, refutation on Internet-derived talking points and so on) is likely to shift the views of those who accept some version of the anti-science position on this topic. Certainly, I don’t intend to try any further.
But, it seems useful for a number of reasons to try to understand why people take and hold such positions. In some cases, it may be that, where rational debate on the scientific merits has failed, some other mode of argument or persuasion might work. More generally, in any political process, it’s useful to understand the opposition.
Here’s a first attempt at a taxonomy, which I started in this Tim Lambert thread
. Looking at those who have either propounded or accepted anti-science views on this topic, nearly all appear to fit into one or more of the following categories
* Irresponsible contrarian
* Emeritus disease
Further update The discussion has convinced me that I need to add a further category, that of irresponsible contrarian. I’d previously applied this to Richard Lindzen, see below, so it was a mistake not to have this category.
Tribalists are probably the biggest group, with two main subcategories.
First, there’s a group of people who really dislike environmentalists and can’t bear the thought that they could be right about something as important as climate change. This group is strongly represented among (though still a minority of) engineers and mining geologists, groups that appear to make up most of the rank-and-file membership of the Lavoisier Group, for example.
Second, there are rightwingers in the US and other countries (including Australia) where the political right derives most of its thinking from the US. The basic motivation is the same, except the animus is directed towards liberals (in the US sense) and leftists in general, rather than environmentalists specifically. Members of this group are notable for an obsessive focus on Al Gore: some seem to think that an An Inconvenient Truth and not, say, the thousands of pages of IPCC reports, is the primary document in the case for action on climate change.
There’s nothing much that can be done about the political right, which is wrapped in impenetrable layers of delusion, but there’s a lot that can be done (and is being done, to some extent) to bridge cultural gaps between environmentalism and professions like engineering and geology. Younger members of these professions tend to be lot more concerned about sustainability, while the spread of suits, haircuts and a generally pragmatic approach among environmentalists has done its bit also.
Ideologists overlap significantly with tribal rightwingers, but are potentially more amenable to argument. These are people with a libertarian, or more generally pro-market outlook, who have convince themselves that doing something serious about climate change involves a major step towards socialism (a view shared by a few hopeful socialists). Given this conviction, wishful thinking inclines members of this group towards scientific delusionism. For most of these people, the fears they have are groundless. The standard measures proposed to deal with climate change, emissions trading and carbon taxes, are minimally interventionist, both in scale (maybe $10 billion a year for Australia to start with, and not much more even in the long run) and form (these are market-based methods of correcting externalities).
There are, I guess, a handful of extreme libertarians whose ideological position depends on the non-existence of global public goods requiring global policy solutions. To this group, I can only say that if your political views are inconsistent with the existence of the atmosphere, perhaps you should revise those views rather than trying to adjust reality to fit them.
The third group, not large in number, but important as opinion leaders, are hacks, who argue against science for a living. This group can easily be recognised by their past track record. Since there aren’t many people prepared to do this kind of thing, the same individuals and institutions have pushed the corporate line on tobacco and passive smoking, the ozone layer, DDT and climate change, among many others. In Australia, the IPA has played the leading role in this respect, running hard on passive smoking before shifting to climate delusionism.
The individual who most exemplifies this group globally is Steve Milloy, an all-purpose compendium of hackery, who spent years presenting himself as a scourge of “junk science” while secretly on the payroll of tobacco and oil companies. He’s now the official Science expert for Fox News, which says it all I guess. People who have paid little attention to th issue and have accepted Internet factoids as trustworthy can often by persuaded by pointing out their origin with people like Milloy. But at this point the majority of delusionists have well-established mental defences for their own delusions; many have convinced themselves that it’s the real scientists who are spouting lies for money and that corporate funding for the likes of Milloy is just self-defence.
The best hope of dealing with this group has been making life hard for their paymasters. After being outed as the money pump for a string of front groups, Exxon has largely given up paying. For anyone old enough to have been in the game before the mid-1990s, it’s always useful to check the Tobacco Archives, which document every corrupt payment made by the tobacco industry to its legion of hired guns.
Fourth, there are irresponsible contrarians, exemplified by Richard Lindzen. The typical contrarian is skilled enough in argument to maintain a weak position, and successful enough in their own field (often tangentially relevant to the issue at hand) to have an inflated view of their own intelligence. And they prefer confuting the conventional wisdom (to their own satisfaction) to giving serious consideration to the views of experts on subjects where there own knowledge is limited. The type is most clearly illustrated by a 2001 Newsweek interview of Lindzen that I’ve quoted before
Lindzen clearly relishes the role of naysayer. He’ll even expound on how weakly lung cancer is linked to cigarette smoking. He speaks in full, impeccably logical paragraphs, and he punctuates his measured cadences with thoughtful drags on a cigarette.
Anyone who could draw this conclusion in the light of the evidence, and act on it as Lindzen has done, is clearly useless as a source of advice on any issue involving the analysis of statistical evidence. But, I imagine, he could hold up his side of this argument just as well as he does on climate change.
Finally, and most unfortunately, there is Emeritus disease, a problem that is found in every area of academic controversy. The typical sufferer is an older male, with the archetypal case being the holder of an emeritus position. Unfortunately, aging tends to go along with both a hardening of intellectual arteries and an unwillingness or inability to keep abreast of recent developments in the field in question, with the effect of dogmatic attachment to views formed long ago. Having taken a view of an issue on the basis of very limited consideration, they remain dogmatically attached to it until the end of their days.
(Looking at the description, I’m obviously a high-risk candidate for going emeritus myself. That’s one reason I try to engage in discussion with people holding a range of views from which I might learn something, most recently economists of the Austrian school).
Unfortunately, Emeritus disease has a bad prognosis. As Max Planck observed long ago
a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
I’ll lay down a few rules for discussion on this post. I’m not interest in rehashing delusionist talking points (GW stopped in 1998, Al Gore is fat and so on) and comments containing such points will in general be deleted. On the other hand, I’d be interested in anyone claiming to have reached a sceptical position who doesn’t fit into one or other of the categories I’ve mentioned (to be credible, you may have to forgo anonymity). And, obviously, I’m interested in refinements of the classification, better targeted counterarguments and so on.