Second thoughts

In a recent post, here and on Crooked Timber, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, Crooked Timber commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

* Central planning
* War and the use of violence in politics
* The best response to climate change

The link on central planning gives a full explanation of my change of position, so I’ll leave it at that.

As regards, war I was, before the Iraq war, a reasonably strong supporter of “humanitarian intervention” and, in particular, of the war in Afghanistan. In the leadup to the Iraq war, I was willing to give Bush and particularly Blair the benefit of the doubt for a long time. Partly as a result of that war, and subsequent episodes, and partly through rethinking the issues, I’m now deeply sceptical of any argument for war, including humanitarian intervention. More generally that scepticism applies to any case for political violence, including revolutionary violence.

On climate change, I’ve made several, interrelated shifts from the position I set out in the linked post from 2004. First, and in response to the massive decline in the cost of renewable energy (solar PV and wind), I’ve drawn the conclusion that renewables provide a feasible basis for decarbonizing the economy, while nuclear power does not.[2] The plummeting cost of solar also implies a much lower cost for replacing coal and gas with renewables and therefore a smaller increase in the implied cost of carbon-free electricity. That in turn means that the goal of decarbonizing the economy can probably be reached in large measure through regulatory policies of various kinds, with only a modest increase in cost. Since there is much more effective political resistance (particularly on the political right) to price-based policies and market mechanisms than to regulations and tax breaks, it makes sense to go this way.

Those aren’t the only issues on which I’ve changed, but they are a sample. I’ll conclude, inevitably, with an apparently apocryphal[3] link to Keynes.

fn1. Even more dangerous is a willingness to defend views dictated by tribal affiliation, regardless of the facts, and of the need to abandon previous positions the moment they become inconvenient. That might seem like a source of political strength in the short run, as it was for the US Republican Party for many years, but the endpoint is a movement run by people like Palin and Trump.

fn2. One of the more striking instances of derp in the energy debate is the continuing prevalence of people, mostly on the right, who concluded in the early 2000s that nuclear power was the best option, and who continue, not merely to maintain this view in the face of the evidence but to argue that the failure of environmentalists to advocate nuclear power represents a denial of evidence comparable to climate science denial. Unfortunately, this argument is assisted by handful of people on the pro-climate side, notably including George Monbiot, who’ve overcorrected their previous outright rejection of nuclear power.

fn3. As with Einstein, Keynes appears to be a natural recipient of credit for clever things he might well have said, but didn’t.

29 thoughts on “Second thoughts

  1. The gravitational pull exercised by famous names on the attribution of bons mots is a general phenomenon. Talleyrand, Wilde, Shaw are regular beneficiaries, possibly Mencken. There should be a name for it. Wildean capture?

  2. Wildean capture, or slovenly misattribution, as Churchill once said (and you can take my word for it, or not)?

  3. Is denialism even a significant issue any longer outside the US and to a lesser extent, Australia? In America the problem is that climate change has become a core totem in the endless, rancorous left/right war which passes for political discourse. Right-wingers could no more admit the reality of global warming than advocate repeal of the 2nd amendment or government-funded abortion on demand. Evidence has nothing to do with it.

    Nevertheless people do change their minds on the basis of evidence. Otherwise many of us would still be smoking like chimneys, hopping into the car after a night at the pub, and explaining that we didn’t use our seatbelts because we wanted to make sure we weren’t incinerated if we were knocked unconscious in a crash and rescuers couldn’t reach the belt buckle.

  4. Of course many people feel that giving what they believe or feel is proof enough, evidence consists of obtaining experimental results or data that can be replicated by all others, gravitational attraction magnetic attraction etc. the same for all who test them. Proof is not beliefs or interpretation which are always subject to bias. If Gravity or magnetism experiments start giving different results replicable by others the theory changes.
    If further experiments show results you don’t want to agree with too bad retest them if you wish but sticking your fingers in your ears and humming loudly to avoid them do’s not invalidate them or validate what you would prefer to believe.

  5. Culturally, we don’t go a very good job of rewarding people who change their views, particularly dramatic changes. Instead, the subject may feel accused of lacking conviction or being intellectually lazy for not having found the “true way” earlier. We see this regularly when Labor politicians have the red views of their youth dragged from the archives. On balance, I think we should encourage changing of minds.

  6. I feel there is another question to be asked here. When economists form a view or reach a conclusion based on the evidence available to them, that is one thing, but criteria other than the strictly economic may come into play in determining a policy or political outcome. An obvious example is the recent vote for Brexit in the UK. Left to the economists (if I am to believe Wren-Lewis and others whose arguments I followed) this should have been a no-brainer. Yet their arguments I often found to be carried on exclusive of political factors, almost technocratic in focus. I have a yearning myself to see my advice followed every day, though disappointingly those in high places never ask. But our political system requires that we take some account of diverse opinions, and in the Brexit referendum it is clear that political, or not-strictly-rational economic factors, held sway, leaving the economists to lament their lack of power. We need a political economy that is able to analyse these matters comprehensively, without being trapped in a ceteris paribus bubble, and of course we need to assert our arguments effectively in political institutions and in the media (as Wren-Lewis and many of his colleagues continue to argue).

  7. @Ken_L

    Rightwing climate denialism is a problem throughout the English speaking world, though the extent to which the right is captured by the denialists is variable.. The unlamented Harper government in Canada was thoroughly denialist. So are UKIP and the right wing of the Tory party, as well as ACT in NZ, though they appear to be embarrassed about it now

  8. It is difficult to converse with them normally. If you are at a site that does current affairs, they will push in bellicose manner their slogans, have them refuted, then repeat the same propositions as if no one else had spoken and regardless of any point made, even when backed by reputable evidence.

  9. @Ben

    I completely agree with you about encouraging mind-changing, Ben, and how this is not well rewarded.

    For instance, when a bunch of Liberal MPs last year changed their minds about who should be PM and acted on it they were charged with being traitors, with back-stabbing, with being obsessed by polls etc. Whereas, they should have been rewarded for their flexibility.

    Don’t you agree ?

  10. “Rightwing climate denialism is a problem throughout the English speaking world ”
    How would you know how denialism is going in the non English speaking world if you don’t speak the language? Mandarin. Hungarian, Swahili?

  11. “Culturally, we don’t go a very good job of rewarding people who change their views, particularly dramatic changes…”

    On the contrary, too many people are already rewarded to change their views (all those who have a choice of either starving or singing the song of the paymaster and live very well in a material sense). Some restrictions or conditions under which a change of views is desirable seems to be called for. The Baysian meaning of the word ‘derp’, as described in the link provided in JQ’s post, is helpful in this regard. One may wish to add to empricial evidence reasoned argument.

    I suspect many readers of this blog-site have experienced a ‘derp culture’ in large private or public organisations. One could also describe the phenomenon I have in mind as a error control problem. Once a higher level person has made or overlooked an error, it is extremely difficult to get it corrected with one of the possible outcomes being legal action. But the adversarial legal system itself is, to some extent, part of a derp culture in the sense that each party tries as hard as they can to defend their ‘position’.

    As for climate science sceptics, how would one know whether their position is that of a derp or that of a well rewarded mouthpiece?

    None of the foregoing is meant to contradict Ben’s description of how the media reacts to policy changes in contemporary life.

  12. @Ernestine Gross

    Interesting point you make about “error control”. Back in the 1990s, IBM had major losses, culminating in a then world record of around US$8 billion in 1993. I can recall reading an article written about that which quoted an ex-senior IBM employee to the effect that:
    1. IBM had become a centralized bureaucracy (where employee progression came from making Powerpoint presentations to the ruling cadre; ie promotion depended on “giving good slide”).
    2. The long and involved process in getting approval – requiring many signoffs – for any new initiative was such that once approval had been given, it was all but impossible to get anything actually terminated – even those activities that were actually losing money.

    And I don’t think IBM has been alone in that kind of folly, even today.

  13. @Ben

    One must always be prepared to welcome back a ‘prodigal son’. Hmmm, I wonder if that applies to Tony Abbott too ?

  14. Prof John, following Peter Chapman above I suggest that the whole concept of ‘more or less costly’ is misleading in this debate. There is nothing normative about the current cost base of anything: it is a resultant of a range of inputs and influences, all of which are themselves resultants of a range of taxes, subsidies, regulations, inherent difficulties and environmental limitations (to name just a few factors). Govt could make solar or wind power vastly cheaper virtually overnight than anything else by a substantial tax on the alternatives, or an onerous regulation that the alternative generators would find ‘expensive’ to fulfil.

    Of course this view is clouded when an economy is open to goods and services from countries with a different currency or cost base – but even this could be upended by tariffs – as were once used to equalise exchanges.

    Taxes, subsidies and regulation create the framework or platform, economics explains exchanges within that framework. Economics cannot determine what is normatively worthwhile.

  15. To what extent is flexibility of opinion inversely dependent on how much it will cost you? Climate Science denial has been about creating a rationalisable basis for avoidance of the responsibility acceptance of it brings – accepting responsibility imposes obligations to act and those come with costs; I doubt it has ever had much to do with genuine critique of, or even actual knowledge of climate science. It won’t be showing the errors in their criticisms of climate science that will bring the required change of mind but the errors in their assessments of the costs and inconveniences of the necessary transition away from fossil fuels to low emissions.

    Renewable energy becoming an achievable low emissions pathway looks to me like something many of us – our host perhaps, as well as myself included – may always have wanted to be possible as an alternative to what looked like the inevitability of a nuclear pathway, about which there were many misgivings, so it was not a reluctant and difficult leap to make in the face of dramatic RE cost reductions. As they smash the price barrier the “free” market judgement will deliver, by proxy, a new assessment by commerce and industry and it’s political advocates on the validity of climate science.

  16. Science, in some instances, should be able to reach a point where mind changing is not possible – eg “the earth rotates around the sun”, “a ten ton truck will smash a dozen eggs”.

    Morals also should be able to reach a point where mind changing is unacceptable – eg “slavery is wrong”, “cannibalism is wrong”.

    Even politics can find firm principles – “no taxation without representation”, “secret ballots”.

    However, on the other hand, there is nothing in bourgeois economics that cannot be changed, because it is from top to toe a false capitalist dogma crowned with false Nobel prizes. Or, if not changed – produce catastrophe.

    I can only put this down to the fact that economics is not economics – it is actually “political economics” and it took a massive struggle to get some universities to accept this fact.

  17. So Professor Quiggin, apart from central planning, how many times in the last 35 years have you changed your opinion on a significant matter in what could be described as a right wing direction?

  18. Should he persuaded of right wing arguments when they don’t satisfy the prerequesite requirements of evidence, logic, and context?

    Am sure if they finally come up with an idea that isn’t contaminated with denialism and furtive self interested rigging of evidence coupled with strawperson arguments that are amusing but unhelpful, Quiggin will be the first one to identify and praise it.

  19. Thanks much for the DERP link John. There are still too many colleagues who see Bayes Nets as solely another software tool and dont appreciate what they say about inference under uncertainty. This is an excellent addition to my Doh! library.

  20. @Ken_L

    Just thinking again about your comment that ProfQ has replied to, I returned to your thesis about “people do change their minds on the basis of evidence.” and I was moved to look up some of the many contributions on this theme that our bloghost has made over time.

    The one that seemed appropriate was his post titled “Doublethink doubleplusungood” of March 3rd, 2012 (you can look it up in the site archive, of course). In this post, ProfQ said:
    “As I observed a couple of years ago during the epistemic closure memetime, reality-denial mechanisms have some major political benefits, particularly in mobilising resistance against policy innovations, and tribal solidarity against outsiders of all kinds.”

    So, you may be right, but there are powerful forces arrayed against any but the most trivial “changes of mind”, and the climate denial thing is one instance (much of it brought tou you by the same folks who brought you smoking denial, too).

  21. @GrueBleen
    A key factor, I think, is the extent to which the INTERPRETATION of the evidence is subject to debate. After all no rational person WANTS global warming to occur, and virtually all of us are relying on research conducted and analysed by people outside our own disciplines. If a significant minority of qualified people claim warming is not occurring, it’s natural to want to believe them.

    We saw that kind of phenomenon with regard to smoking, but eventually the weight of expert opinion was such that only an irrational person would have chosen to stick with the tiny number of naysayers. We passed a similar point in the global warming controversy some time back, which is why denialism is in full retreat. The complicating factor is the totemic nature of denialism in the US political context which I referred to in my earlier comment.

    In truth, I suspect quite a lot of American right-wingers HAVE changed their minds in the light of the overwhelming evidence. They’re simply not willing to say so, because tribal loyalty takes precedence over intellectual integrity.

  22. @Ivor
    For example I have changed views on the following topics.

    Climate change – sceptic to believer (left shift)
    Gay marriage – opposed to support (left shift)
    Immigration – support to limit greatly (right shift)
    Monetary policy – accomodating to loosened way too far (right shift)
    Fiscal policy – tightening to should spend more (left shift)
    Turnbull – basically good guy to knob (reality shift)

    And so on. But changing your views in a direction you are already inclined to doesn’t count to me as a substantive change.

  23. @Ken_L

    Once we start getting into the “interpretation” of the evidence, then we’re back in the whole “infinite regress” problem that we have with Popperian so-called falsification. But I expect you know that.

    My experience personally though, is that I very seldom learn, or unlearn, based on ‘evidence’. Like most humans, almost all of my learning comes from various kinds of testimony, including self-testimony. I think the only knowledge I have acquired based on evidence was from mathematics where I could independently ‘create’ the evidence – or at least follow line by line somebody else’s evidence (which BOC is called a ‘proof’ in mathematics).

    Of course there are some trivial things that I know from evidence, such as the address of my residence. But of course, I don’t know my name from evidence, only from testimony. And there are some things I know by self testimony – eg that I am not a Christian.

    So, when it comes to climate science, my ‘belief’, such as it is, is almost entirely based on accepting the testimony of people who have scientific accreditation, who publish peer reviewed papers etc. I depend on them for uncovering, identifying and analyzing “the evidence” and for rendering their conclusions in ways that I can follow.

    But I guess if you are used to following different testimony eg from religious leaders or Fox News, or following self-testimony eg the people who initiate conspiracy theories “from scratch” which then become normal testimony to others, then your belief system would be a whole other world than mine.

    So for me, the question basically is: having once ‘accepted’ some testimony (self or other), whose, and what, testimony could change your mind. As an example, I once accepted ‘testimony’ from a Sunday-school teacher as to Christianity and the Bible, but I later countered that by self testimony (having accomplished the countering at about age 11, quite a few years before I read Bertrand Russell). So I still can’t quite see where ‘evidence’ as such entered into that process.

  24. It is a really interesting idea, “When have you changed your mind?”. It has been said of scientific progress that the opponents of new theories don’t change their minds, they just stop opposing you when they die.

    But the process of forming beliefs is interesting. There are trivial beliefs like “boiling water is hot”. Everyone agrees, and you’d be an idiot to think otherwise. Sure if you drastically reduce the pressure you can boil water at much lower temperatures, but that is just silly.

    More complex beliefs usually involve things that are difficult to quantify. Who is the most valuable player in your footy team? Before you even hazard a guess, you have to decide what values you apply. Do you mean the one who, if they were missing, would most reduce your chances of winning a game? The game, or maybe the premiership? Are you measuring just their on field contribution, and are you including their ability to lift the players around them? And given they are there, how can you know how things will go without them?

    Discussions around these less tangible beliefs are interesting, because they give people the opportunity to express their own values. There will always be the romantic tragics like me who pick the little guy with the magic skills and a ton of guts. But others will favour the big, solid, dependable bloke. And then there are those who are actually dispassionate and actually try and be objective. These people should be politely listened to, and then ignored.

    So for what its worth, I’ve shifted from Roger Hayden to Ballantyne to Fyfe.

    And global warming skeptics? They don’t think that boiling water is hot.

  25. @John Brookes

    But it isn’t, mate. Bertrand Russell showed clearly – in a gedanken experiment anyway – that it’s really easy to persuade people that you boil water by putting your kettle (those who still have kettles) on an ice-block.

    Of course he did concede that this would be a special “Sunday belief” (just like God) and that during the normal week people would boil their water by putting their kettle on their ignited gas-ring. But then, if you don’t mind cold tea, you can boil your kettle on an ice-block all week.

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