The “science” tells us nothing (or rather, very little) on climate change

John Maynard Keynes famously said that ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. If only.

Climategates and reviews of climategates have now run their course over the past half-year. But anyone thinking that this settles the ‘science’ issue,  therefore removing a major roadblock on action on climate change, I fear, is going to be disappointed.

What the science ‘says’ is largely peripheral to the big question at hand: what do we do about climate change? This question is one of a political nature, to which there are no right answers, simply judgment calls on a spectrum of policy choices from the good to the least-worst.

The central fallacy, I think of any person (politician, campaigner, scientist, etc.) beginning any written or verbal attempt at persuasion with ‘the science tells us that…’ (I know I’ve done this many times before) is the intuitive, but flawed belief that we are rational, dispassionate creatures who act when confronted with evidence. Mounting evidence about the range and extent of climate change impacts should, in this assumption, lead to a mounting case for policy coordination and regulation. Information about climate impacts is the missing variable in this road to public support and international information. Joe Romm at the Climate Progress blog speculated last month about ‘what would happen if we had perfect information on climate change’ – but to treat scientific information as a crutch on which to pin hopes of effective global action is to miss the bigger picture about how change happens.

A piece last week in the Boston Globe follows some of the experiments that political scientists and psychologists conduct about how peoples’ beliefs are formed. “Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite”, Joe Keohane writes. Instead,

“when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

“This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper…

“Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.”

Homo economicus – responding to externali stimuli in a predictable, mechanistic manner – we’re not.

Instead, we inescapably live in a web of social relationships that filters our information-processing capabilities. Friends’ words matter more than strangers; anecdotal history matters more than academic papers.

Al Gore may be a bit like Marmite (love him or hate him), but one reason for An Inconvenient Truth’s success, I think, was being wound up in his own personal narrative. Some profoundly disliked this, thinking that it confused the messenger with the message – but the story of the messenger is inevitably central to the persuasiveness of the message. In appeals to personal experiences, emotional tugs on the heartstrings, and constructing a sense of belief about the possibility of human agency, the rationale for action emerges by reference to values collectively held and identities about who ‘we’ are, none of which is really rational (in a conventional, utility-maximizing sense) but instead rationalized.

None of this is to belittle the disinformation spread by Bush-era officials, Exxon or the others willfully casting aspersions over the ‘certainty’ and credibility of the scientific evidence (recently, such as sloppy journalism at the Sunday Times). Such efforts clearly obfuscate public and political support. The clarity of information, however, is no silver bullet.

Fred Pearce (who is not alone), reviewing recent negotiating meetings, bemoans a prospective climate agreement “based not on science, but politics”. But a political agreement devoid of politics? Devoid of trade-offs and compromises, devoid of risky judgment calls, and unholy alliances? If only.

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