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Ben Pile: Environmentalism’s Amoral Disorder

The problem for environmentalists 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. The hoi-polloi — the demos — has failed to respond to environmentalism’s prophets, and so environmental mythology has developed to account for this disobedience. 

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’.

Full essay