The Limits of Reason

I’ve been absent from the climate change wars for a while — disheartened by the whole Gleick – Heartland affair. I won’t go into it in much detail — aren’t we all extremely tired of it?


Sisyphys (1548-1549) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain

I’ve been rethinking my role in these debates since the whole business. Gleick’s actions, whatever they were, served to illustrate what is wrong with the whole climate change wars. Evidence, in the end, doesn’t matter. Power matters.

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Peter Watts in which he laments the sorry state of humanity that I think is worth considering in this context:

I realized, at that point, that you just can’t reason with some people.  It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why this should be so.  I think it comes down to the oft-revisited theme that natural selection has shaped our brains not for logic but for inclusive fitness.  We can use logic when we want to, of course.  We have tools of reason at our command; but according to at least some experts[1] we have those tools not to glean truth from falsehood but to help us win arguments; to make others do what we want; to use as a weapon.  It’s rhetoric and manipulation that evolution selected for: logic just tagged along as a side effect.  Sweeping oratory, rational debate, it’s all just a way to bend others to your will.

In that light, it shouldn’t surprise us that our brains have developed countermeasures to so-called reasoned argument.  A seemingly-endless list of cognitive glitches compromise the brain’s inability to perceive reality— but maybe they aren’t so much glitches as adaptations, meant to counter the pernicious effects of the silver-tongued.  Confirmation bias, for example, leads us to cherry-pick facts which support our own beliefs;  the Semmelweis reflex makes us automatically reject findings that contradict our expectations.  And perhaps most radically, the Backfire Effect.  You’d think a rational person, confronted with evidence contradicting their beliefs on a given subject, would at the very least grow less confident in those beliefs.  In fact, such contrary evidence often reinforces the very belief being undermined.

These adaptations, if that’s what they are — these defenses against social manipulation — would make rational discourse difficult enough.  But it gets worse.  We know from the work of Kruger and Dunning[2] that not only do people tend to overestimate their own smarts, but that this effect is especially pronounced among the incompetent. Furthermore, incompetent people tend not only to regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid, even when shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.

It explains so much, these counter-rhetorical biases.  It explains why climate-change deniers dig their heels in even deeper with each new study confirming the reality of climate change.

Science is so wonderful because it attempts to remove these influences and stick with the facts and the implications of them, rather than ego-driven wish fulfilment clouded by bias and desire. But it seems to me, if we take Watts insights, that this means people are adapted to ignore science – ignore evidence – when it suits them. Hence, you have deniers who refuse to accept the science — not because the science is wrong, but because it is inconvenient to their economic self-interest. Or because they want to remain ideologically pure (Ayn Randians forex).

Facts and evidence won’t sway these folks. Science is wasted on them. They just shut off the part of their brains that can be swayed by evidence and stick with comfortable delusions.

The rest of the population is ready to accept what science tells them. They generally respect scientists. The problem is that journalism, as an industry reliant on selling newspapers or getting eyes on websites or advertisements, tends to present such a dizzying array of conflicting headlines and messages that it seems that science is up its own arse. Scientists appear to be a psychotic lot who speak in tongues and have multiple personalities. One week it’s good to eat this and then the next it’s bad, one week this causes cancer, the next it doesn’t. No wonder people are confused. I don’t blame the scientists, but the industry of journalism. Even journalists are victims of the system which forces headline writers to write the fantastic to draw readers. Not only are there conflicting messages; there are just too many messages. The average person is overwhelmed and does not have the skills necessary to sort through the dreck to find what’s worthy of thought.

Deniers rely on this confusion. They play it up, spouting alternative theories that do not make the grade. This leads to uncertainty in the minds of the public about what to believe. Uncertainty on the part of the electorate means that politicians, those weak-kneed lily-livered lot, can stall or ignore or sidestep making hard choices.

It comes down to a question, not of truth, but power. Power and those who exercise it and monopolize it, is what matters. Only when those who can make policy — politicians — feel under the gun enough, face a loss at the ballot box, and get the message loud and clear that it is time to act, will we see serious concerted action to mitigate fossil fuel-produced CO2 induced global warming.

It’s sad to say but I agree with Sir John Houghton:

If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster. It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident.

Think of the 2004 Tsunami or the recent Tsunami in Japan. There were folks warning about the risks but no one listened. Humans procrastinate until it’s too late. Until we have disasters, we humans are too short-sighted to act, too self-interested, and too willing to ignore evidence in order to avoid making uncomfortable decisions. Because of vested interests, it’s all the harder. Because of the corruption of our political systems, it is even harder still.

The cards are stacked against rational action. At this time. Rational action will take political will and so far, there isn’t enough despite the growing evidence that we must act — and soon.

My little corner of the internet has been dedicated to poking fun at deniers, looking at their arguments and narratives and making fun, using sarcasm and satire to try to make a point. I’ve been preaching to the choir, and I thank everyone who has visited Policy Lass blog over the past couple of years. I have many regular readers who check in every day to see if I’ve updated. I know where you’re from and appreciate your interest. I feel somewhat pleased to have readers from NOAA, NASA, JPL, and dozens of universities and research institutes. People from around the world – amazing for one small person of no import. Thank you for reading. Hell, even Husky Oil — glad to see you. 🙂

This isn’t a swan song. I’m just going to focus less on snark and more on exploring how to build a political movement. Twice in my life I’ve been involved in small-scale political movements that had some measure of success. I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about this and reading about it and finding people who have ideas on how to move this forward. That includes finding public figures who are already or who can become climate champions, encouraging them to speak out, to use their sway with the public, to use social media to reach the electorate, to reach young people, and those who vote, and make it so that the decision makers and policy makers have to listen.

It’s the only way anything will change.

I don’t yet know how to do this, or what avenues to pursue, but I think those of us who spend our time attacking the deniers or even simply trying to push the truth will not achieve what we desire — serious action on climate change. There’s just too much noise and too much disinformation to succeed by either using satire or science to effect change. Satire is lost on all but those who are receptive to the message and science alone is not enough to sway.

We have to seize the discourse among the public using the tools that reach the public. It will be an uphill battle because corporations like EXXON Mobil have so much wealth and the fossil fuel industry has so much wealth and can afford to put on sexy ads about jobs and energy independence and economic security. Until we have voices as big and compelling who can reach into the lives and minds of Joe Public and show them the truth and what they can do to deal with it, we will remain locked in this Sisyphean struggle, expending a whole lot of energy without getting anywhere – fast.

I’m tired and frustrated by it.

The Gleick – Heartland affair and the whole debate that arose around it made this clear to me.

So that’s it for me for a while.

As usual, I will continue to read your blogs and keep up with the climate deniers, but I’m out of heart for what I’ve been doing for the past two years here.

à bientôt

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

9 Responses to “The Limits of Reason”

  1. I think most of us are now realising that climate change denial is not something that can be tackled with reason and science. If it could be then it would have withered and died by now.

    You say you are looking for a political way forward. There is one of course – at least, for those of us fortunate enough to live in Scotland at this point in history. It is the Independence movement. (And note that I say Independence Movement, not SNP).

    The present Scottish government and pro-Indy supporters from other parties all have a very genuine committment to renewable energy and emissions reductions. Scotland is a tiny country, but it can lead the world by example, and will if given its head. Use your talents to promote a positive result in the independence referendum and you are fighting climate denial on the front lines.

  2. Spot on. Although its tempting to thing we can make progress by reasoning with those who currently reject the science, on the whole I think there are many more productive ways to harness our talents.
    One problem we face is that the entire issue of climate change and the range of things we ought to do about it is profoundly a negative one – its all about giving up stuff, avoiding, reducing, etc.
    I’ve been greatly re-energized recently be reading about and joining in the Transition Town movement. Unlike any other response I’ve seen, it’s an overwhelmingly positive message about building community resilience while developing an energy descent plan. I highly recommend “The Transition Handbook” – I think this is the kind of political movement we should be building.

  3. You said: “I’m just going to focus less on snark and more on exploring how to build a political movement”
    You could do a lot worse than to start by reading Gene Sharp’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’. The next step is then to decide whether you’re pushing for democracy or just another dictatorship.

  4. I think a political approach is the right way to go. That, and educating folks on just how serious the problem is. Good luck with your efforts, and thanks for the good work to date.

  5. So, Gleick’s stuff got most of the press, but if you want to do something, read Fakeducation, which summarizes Heartland’s repreated efforts to impose its idea of science on schools, including at least twice on *Canadian* high schools. How do you feel about that? Do you think they will try again? I wonder who helped them do that. I wonder if there’s a way to help the schools out if they try again.

    Fake science… p.34 notes that Heartland sent $25K to NRSP (i.e., Tom Harris), not a charity.
    Now, from the US side, that’s a no-no, but from the Canada side, it might be also, if Harris got money and didn’t declare it as income.

    Some of these guys are doing things that may be illegal, and if so, it may or may not be possible to get anything to happen … but if nobody ever tries, one can guarantee nothing will ever happen.

    • I don’t want to minimize what Gleick did — both the benefits and the drawbacks. It was good for the world to see into HL and its inner sanctum. I think it opened some people’s eyes, and confirmed what others of us already knew or suspected. At the same time, it was a loss — of Gleick. I’m sure in time he will be back. So will groups like HL. They’ll continue to do what they do and get away with it because they’re the ones making the laws and they ensure the laws benefit them.

      Was the cost worth the benefit? Time will tell.

      I hope people keep chipping away at the edifice propping the deniers up. Kudos to those who have the stomach to do it, including you, John.

      • Thanks, but let me try again.
        Ignore Peter’s stuff for now. For me, there was relatively little new or surprising, the most such being fact that HI was getting more tobacco money now than 10 years ago. There was embarrassing stuff, some of which cost them some donations, but relatively little that was *actionable.*. Mine was geared very differently, set up to support complaints to the IRS, and entirely from public info.

        But being legally actionable is irrelevant if no one pushes on them, but that takes effort and persistence, not just a blog post or two.

        I do suggest that if one gets tired of endless arguments, that there are other useful things to do, like watch out for attempts to muddy education or bring complaints against people who may well be violating tax laws.

        In Canada, there seem to be several cases where people are teaching complete nonsense instead of climate science. Maybe students can be helped to say “I want my money back.”

        Of course, the libel suits against Tim Ball and the NP are good examples of things that may work in Canada, but not so well in US.

  6. Hang on a second.

    A MacArthur Genius commits fraud to get at financial documents from Heartland and when the docs don’t turn out to be media dynamite he makes incredibly sophomoric forgeries and the problem according to you is that ignorant common people think they’re so smart?

    Then you go on to lament the failure of reason and strict adherence to the methods of rational inquiry…by the skeptics?

    The reason why your blog has such low traffic compared to CA or WUWT is because you’re suffering from denial. New viewers stumble in here and find nothing but a screed that seems to everyone but other True Believers nothing more than bilious obfuscation of the really important bits of the debate we all want to get at.

    It’s childish to assume that people you disagree with are stupid and people who agree with you are brilliant.

    The basic climate debate is not rocket science. Anyone who wants to read up on both sides of the argument can and then vote with their online attention for whomever is more focused on the pertinent facts. The science debate is actually not about politics, or evolutionary psychology, or evil capitalist conspiracies or cool smart people versus rednecks.

    Here the basic argument in plain English:

    The AGW theory is based upon the fact that CO2 causes 1.1c of warming for each doubling of the atmospheric CO2 level. Everyone agrees with this.

    This isn’t enough to cause a catastrophe so it would be end of story.

    But the IPCC has speculated that water vapour feedback is strongly positive with x3 amplification. So we get 1.1c of warming with CO2 x 3 = 3.3c of warming by possibly as early as 2050. That’s catastrophic.

    The IPCC bases this high positive feedback level of water vapour primarily on the fact that CO2 increases can only account for about 1/3 of the warming since the last 200 years, therefore the climate sensitivity to water vapour feedback must be x3.

    The problem is that some unknown amount of the warming since, say 1830 is due to a natural climate bounce back from the Little Ice Age, an anomalous cold spell which bottomed about 1830.

    The other problem is that if water vapour is a huge x3 amplification on warming then the IPPC climate models show that a global donut of warm air called the hotspot should be present by now around the equatorial regions. It’s not. Nada. Warmist are in denial over this, hoping to find it one day, but it’s been thoroughly measured and it’s not there.

    Models of AGW also show the oceans should be steadily warming. Since 2003, the Argo monitoring of the oceans show that the oceans are not warming as predicted by AGW. Again the warmists are in denial about this too.

    Models of AGW show the surface temperature should also be rising. And it has, but the warming has fallen short of even the lowest IPPC scenarios for warming since 1990. Warmists answer: Denial.

    Models show that if water vapour feedback is powerfully positive then outgoing heat from the Earth’s surface should be slowing since more of its being reflected back. False. Studies show that outgoing radiation increases when the Earth warms.

    So an increasing number of scientists (and even stupid voters) are thinking that AGW, especially the assumption of x3 positive water vapour feedback is less than a useful description of what the data is actually telling us about what is happening today. Especially the hysterical forecasts of catastrophic warming are very unlikely and because they divert limited resources away from real human and ecological issues AGW hysteria is itself a danger to our future.

    Many skeptics are now ready to offer a more useful model of climate based on the well understood principle that long-lived complex systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium are governed by NEGATIVE feedback in their most important features. Otherwise, every small perturbation of warming would trigger a x3 amplification effect lasting for centuries or millennia and we know that’s not the case. The medieval warm period was as warm or warmer than today and didn’t trigger positive water vapour feedback, in fact it ended very rapidly with cooling as much as 0.2c a decade!

    This has lead some scientists to speculate that water vapour feedback at the current level of warming might be less than x1, or negative. As the world warms up water evaporates and creates more clouds, clouds reflect heat back into space efficiently, the Earth tends to cool.

    Emerging empirical evidence has cast serious doubt upon the AGW theory as it is currently projected by the IPCC. It’s no longer rationally honest response to simply deny the evidence and complain the ever increasing number of researchers working towards newer, more useful models to describe modern climate are victims of propaganda or just plain evil.

    Otherwise, you’re right, we have reached the limits of reason.


  1. Fight Climate Change Denial – Support Scottish Independence | Scotland's Renewable Energy Blog - April 11, 2012

    […] science. For a superb summary of this I commend you to The Policy Lass’s excellent article The Limits of Reason, which is the best summary of the problem I have read to […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: