Lewindowsky on How Ideology Trumps Fact

In some ways Australia is ground zero in the climate change catastrophe. For whatever reasons, human-caused perturbations of climate are falling especially hard and especially early Down Under. Which means their politics are probably in some ways a predictor of what we can expect in other parts of the world as things get climatically weirder.

Anyway, I really liked this piece by Australian Stephan Lewandowsky:
The truth is out there. It’s more about American politics than Australian politics, but I still get a sense of the Australian reality seeping through:

The late Stephen Jay Gould referred to a fact as something that it would be “perverse to withhold provisional assent.” Notwithstanding the Academy’s clear statement about the existence of global warming and its human-made causes, recent surveys reveal that the majority of US Republicans do not accept this scientific fact.

Indeed, tragically and paradoxically, among Republicans acceptance of the science decreases with their level of education as well as with their self-reported knowledge: Whereas Democrats who believe they understand global warming better also are more likely to believe that it poses a threat in their lifetimes, among Republicans increased belief in understanding global warming is associated with decreased perception of its severity. The more they think they know, the more ignorant they reveal themselves to be.


What motivates people to reject trivially simple facts – such as the President’s place of birth – as well as more complex facts – such as insights from geophysics and atmospheric science?

The peer-reviewed psychological literature provides some insight into this question. Numerous studies converge onto the conclusion that there is a strong correlation between a person’s endorsement of unregulated free markets as the solution to society’s needs on the one hand, and rejection of climate science on the other. The more “fundamentalist” a person is disposed towards the free market, the more likely they are to be in denial of global warming.

But what do markets have to do with geophysics or the thermal properties of CO2?

The answer is that global warming poses a potential threat to laissez-faire business. If emissions must be cut, then markets must be regulated or at least “nudged” towards alternative sources of energy – and any possibility of regulation is considered a threat to the very essence of their worldview by those for whom the free market is humanity’s crowning achievement.

It is this deep psychological threat that in part explains the hyper-emotionality of the anti-science discourse: the frenetic alarmism about a “world government”, the rhetoric of “warmist” or “extremist” levelled at scientists who rely on the peer reviewed literature, the ready invocation of the spectre of “socialism” – they all point to the perception of threat so fundamental that even crazed beliefs can constitute an alluring antidote.

7 Responses to “Lewindowsky on How Ideology Trumps Fact”

  1. ethan-p Says:

    I’m just going to repeat what I said the other day on this.

    The same logic being used against deniers can also be turned against the progressives dogmatic belief in causal anthropogenic global warming. If Causal AGW is an affront to the beliefs of conservatives and libertarians – progressives, on the flip side of the coin, have just as much to gain by selling us hard on causal AGW, since it similarly advances their political agenda.

    When you add politics to science, it breeds a serious scientific conflict of interest. It’s led to science having little or nothing to do with the discussion. Each side is equally guilty of science whoring on this one, the discussion has become rooted in political ideology.

    Now pot, meet kettle. Y’all are both black.

  2. knarlyknight Says:

    ethan, don’t use that language around Enky he’ll call you a racist.

    Some entertainment from me to you about the birthers at http://www.lies.com/wp/2011/04/27/what-will-birthers-do-now/#comment-222254

  3. shcb Says:

    You’re not going to get through Ethan, this is religious experience to JBC. It has all the hallmarks of religion, the people that believe we are doomed because of fossil fuel burning are simply right, there is no room for dissent. If someone disagrees or has another opinion where another opinion is perfectly viable they are to be either ridiculed or pitied.

    I was first exposed to this when I was a youngster, the nuns told us that Catholicism was the only true religion, all others were fakes, they said some beliefs revolved around several gods and that was just wrong, it was so obvious there could only be one god. So it was easy given those facts (who was I to question a person of the cloth (insert PHD into this example) to understand that Buddhists and Hindus, etc were wrong, they didn’t believe in Jesus or the bible. But then I asked them about my Christian friends, surely they weren’t wrong, they believed in Jesus, celebrated Christmas and all. But the nuns said they believed in sort of the right god, they were close but they weren’t quite right either, they weren’t going to heaven when they died, they would be in a little place next to heaven, they should be pitied, they were just wrong. But the Methodists were the worst. It wasn’t until later in life I realized why the Methodists were worse, they has a summer camp with a swimming pool out at the state park and the nuns didn’t want to take a chance my religious contributions would go the Methodists for the rest of my life, she had a rice bowl to protect. Us Catholics didn’t have a summer camp at the state park.

    So when the pro AGW people like Al Gore started saying the science is in, there is nothing left to learn I saw the same dynamic as the nuns so many years ago. Look at the articles JBC posts here, they are all trying to figure out what is wrong with these people that don’t believe The Truth, should we pity them or ridicule them? When Al said he was only a proponent of ethanol as long as the corn lobby was giving him money I was convinced this was a religion.

    Very seldom will you see the AGW proponents cite facts and figures they have analyzed themselves, they just cite their experts opinions (insert priests and ministers) this is belief, not science.

    And as you are going to be so right to soon point out, JBC will say the exact same thing about me :)

  4. jbc Says:

    Well, it’s a “religious experience” only if you are defining “belief in the efficacy of the scientific method and empiricism, as objectively inferable by examination of the positions of mainstream institutions like national science academies” as a religion. If you are, then yes, this is a matter of religious faith for me.

    At that point, though, you’ve pretty much defined the most objective, empirical, evidence-based epistemology available, an epistemology that was created as an explicit rejection of religious faith, as being indistinguishable from religious faith. Which makes me think your definition has become so all-inclusive as to be essentially meaningless. What approach to determining the objective truth of this matter can you suggest that wouldn’t amount to religious faith? And how is your recommended approach superior to examining the positions of national science academies?

    Consulting priests is not the same thing as consulting scientists. You’re no more a climate scientist than I am. Neither of us has the scientific credentials to reach our own independent, scientifically valid conclusions on a huge array of facts that we nevertheless accept based on the authority of mainstream scientific opinion.

    You are asserting that it is valid and reasonable for you to reject the overwhelming view of climate scientists because you believe, based on no particularly persuasive authority that I’ve seen you cite, that they are either 1) mistaken, or 2) part of some vast conspiracy. But tell me, would you think it reasonable for someone to reject the following consensus scientific positions, based on nothing more compelling than what you’ve offered on global warming?

    * the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, rather than 6,000 years old
    * species evolve from other species
    * DNA exists, and serves to transmit inherited characteristics
    * computers work via microscopic integrated circuits, rather than by magic
    * the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the solar system
    * the sun’s heat is created by nuclear fusion
    * the moon has been visited by human beings

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to reject the scientific consensus on any of those things. Just like I don’t think it’s reasonable to reject the scientific consensus on global warming. Because it simply isn’t reasonable to do so. Not if you want to live as an adult in the real world.

    I won’t dispute your right to live in a childish fantasy world, if that’s the choice you want to make. But I’m not going to pretend it’s anything other than that.

  5. shcb Says:

    Almost every scientific discovery displaced a previous hypothesis that was peer reviewed. Scientists have made mistakes and then stubbornly clung to their mistaken ideas until hell froze over before. Remember the story of Einstein being told a scientist was one of 100 German scientists that didn’t agree with his theory, he asked why he needed the other 99. I don’t think they are wrong, just wrong about the degree, and that is enough to influence bad political decisions.

    I can hear my mom just incredulous that someone would even consider a priest would molest a young boy. They were men of the cloth, ordained by God himself. The Church despised homosexual activity, surely they would monitor any actions by an occasional problem individual. These men of the cloth went through years of training, as many as a doctor, if anything was wrong surely it would have been found out then, that was what process was for. The process is a good one the congregation was told, trust us. She believed them for quite some time because she had been taught the church was good and only there for her benefit.

    But alas as in any closed society that is left to police itself there were a few bad apples and that self policing group circled the wagons, not wanting anyone to see them as human, not to be seen as gods but as the self regulating protectors of purity and knowledge.

  6. knarlyknight Says:


    FYI – the consensus scientific opinion on the age of the Earth is about to change.

    Something impossible has happened. Yet the “impossible” has been proven to be true. Laboratories around the globe have confirmed that the rate of radioactive decay—once thought to be a constant and a bedrock of science—is no longer a constant. Something being emitted from the sun is interacting with matter in strange and unknown ways with the startling potential to dramatically change the nature of the very Earth itself.

    This is the conclusion that researchers from Stanford and Purdue University have arrived at, but the only explanation they have is even weirder than the phenomenon itself: The sun might be emitting a previously unknown particle that is meddling with the decay rates of matter. Or, at the very least, we are seeing some new physics



  7. ethan-p Says:

    * the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, rather than 6,000 years old
    * species evolve from other species
    * DNA exists, and serves to transmit inherited characteristics
    * computers work via microscopic integrated circuits, rather than by magic
    * the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the solar system
    * the sun’s heat is created by nuclear fusion
    * the moon has been visited by human beings

    JBC – I don’t dispute any of these. I think that your comparison of disgust with how science has been politicized with disbelief in these things is a straw man argument. Come on – you’re better than that. I’m not saying that SHCB and I are on the same page; I can only speak for myself.

    Real science does not require consensus, in fact, they have little to do with each other (beyond peer review – but this does not require consensus either). Consensus does not equal truth. As someone who believes in the scientific method – I find the whole thing shameful.

    You’ve posted an article suggesting that people who have a certain political belief are prone to disagree with these findings for specific political reasons. I simply suggested that people on the other end of the spectrum would conversely be motivated to agree (nay – evangelize) the same findings. This is the crux of my whole problem with the issue.

    The fact that you are evangelizing the findings, and cling to them like gospel does make this seem a lot like a religious debate. It feels like anyone who disagrees or has reservations is immediately discredited by the “believers”. These “believers” aren’t interested in a dialog or debate. There is no interest in finding greater truth or meaning unless the findings promote their ideology. They want to be right – and convert everyone else. I’m sure that my feelings on this make you think that I’m kind of an asshole (kind of like a heretic). The more I read about this, the stronger I feel that this this is pretty damn close to religious – and it definitely is swayed by political leanings. You’ve shown how one side of the political spectrum can be swayed one way. I think that it’s actually pretty astute, and underlines part of my feelings about this. However, you have not acknowledged how those on the other end of the political spectrum are swayed (perhaps more so).

    Personally, I feel that the science has been so sold out that I don’t know what to believe – and we’re certainly not going to accomplish anything in this forum. What I do not argue is that there are plenty of other reasons to use/develop alternative energy sources that will, among all of the other positive effects, have the effect of reducing output of CO2 and CH4. I think that the idea has reached a critical mass, and I believe that we’ll get there. Frankly, I think that it’s a damn good idea. Does it make sense to freak out and make sweeping changes that will hurt us and throttle the shit out of the third world? I don’t think so, and again, I feel that this is ultimately more political than scientific. Perhaps this is part of where we differ politically – and that’s OK. I realize that we’re different in this regard. Just realize that yelling loudly about an issue and making your strong feelings clear doesn’t add credibility. Suggesting that people who feel a little differently about this are stupid doesn’t help either. In fact, for me – this just strengthens my concerns about the issue – and my wariness about how we respond as a nation.

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