Jul 28 2012

Mapping the streaks

Skepticism, libertarianism, and conspiracy theory sometimes combine into one package.

new research to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science has found a link between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of established facts about climate science.

In a survey of more than 1,000 readers of websites related to climate change, people who agreed with free market economic principles and endorsed conspiracy theories were more likely to dispute that human-caused climate change was a reality.

The link between endorsing conspiracy theories and rejecting climate science facts suggests that it is the libertarian instinct to stick two fingers up at the mainstream – whatever the issue – that is important. Because a radical libertarian streak is the hallmark of free-market economics, and because free market views are popular on the political right, this is where climate change scepticism is most likely to be found.

And there’s a fourth item that you often find along with those three – a suspicion (to put it delicately) of women. This business of telling the mainstream to fuck off is probably part of that. For a lot of rebel doodz, women represent all the things they want to say fuck off to – the mainstream, conformity, respectability. They’re all Huck Finn, and we’re all the Widow Douglas.

What that of course overlooks (cluelessly) is that male superiority is probably the most mainstream idea there’s ever been. I suppose that’s why MRAs spend so much time and energy trying to turn that fact on its head.

Women have conspired throughout history to disguise their huge power and to pretend humans have walked on the moon.


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  1. 1

    Women have conspired throughout history to disguise their huge power and to pretend humans have walked on the moon

    Ophelia!! *frowns, shakes head, finger to lips*


  2. 2

    I wonder how much these ‘free market’ enthusiasts really understand free market economics.

    Milton Freidman, who was pushing free market solutions to problems a few decades ago, recognized that there are such things as externalities such as pollution. He advocated pollution taxes as the best way to get people to use the cheapest way to cut emmissions.

  3. 3
    Neil Rickert

    When you are driven by an ideology, conspiracy theories are what you come up with in an attempt to explain away the inconvenient evidence.

  4. 4
    Ian MacDougall

    Point #1: The climatologists cannot possibly be right about alleged global warming and the alleged role of CO2 in it, because if they were it would be bad for established business. QED. ;-)

    Point #2: While climate ‘skeptics’ (some of them academic – eg Ian Plimer) are happy to maintain that there is a de facto global conspiracy of climatologists aimed at scoring research grants, the academic reality is that any insider to it who was prepared to roll over would have their name up in lights in academia, get gongs galore, and be able to dine out on it for the rest of their days (or should that be evenings?).

    So any conspiracy theory should be looked at as critically as any other new proposal. But conspiracy theories should not be dismissed automatically. I think, having read his book, that Jim Garrison is probably right about the JFK assassination, and that there were probably a number of people involved, one of the minor players being a man named Oswald.

    Which makes it quite likely that walking the streets today there are men who drew a bead on the President of the United States, and squeezed the trigger.

    They are probably also in the NRA.

  5. 5

    “For a lot of rebel doodz, women represent all the things they want to say fuck off to – the mainstream, conformity, respectability.”

    YES. That’s why terms like “politically correct” were invented. That and “feminazi”.

  6. 6
    Ken Pidcock

    The challenge of engaging with climate change sceptics is finding the lens that better fits their ideological views – not just shouting the science more loudly.

    How many times do people have to write read this advice before they realize how useless important it is?

  7. 7
    Pierce R. Butler

    … it is the libertarian instinct to stick two fingers up at the mainstream …

    Two fingers? Two fingers?

    Damn BritAussie liberterrorians still think they have anything to say?

    Get with the (streamlined, energy-efficient) program!

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    jimbaerg #2

    I wonder how much these ‘free market’ enthusiasts really understand free market economics.

    Most libertarians are economic illiterates with a completely mistaken idea about free markets. They boil Adam Smith’s complex, dense Wealth of Nations into a single bullet point that isn’t in the book. Contrary to common misconceptions, Smith did not assert that all self-interested labor necessarily benefits society, or that all public goods are produced through self-interested labor. His “invisible hand” idea is that in a free market, people usually tend to produce goods desired by their customers. The tragedy of the commons is an example where self-interest tends to bring an unwanted result.

  9. 9
    Alex SL

    Well, duh. Climate change denial is a conspiracy theory, full stop.

    I still think that using the word “skepticism” in this way is wrong, though. Properly understood, one should stop with the skepticism for the time being once the evidence has become overwhelming.

  10. 10
    M Walton

    Well, that seems reasonable. Where do the hyper-religious rightists fit into this? I see that their “old style religion” will give backing to many of the toxic ideas that they must find support for (anti-women, -science, etc.) but it surely would come into conflict with the “skeptical” nature ascribed to them. WTF?

  11. 11
    Steve Croker

    Yes, “skepticism” is tricky and potentially misleading. On the one hand there’s the idea of doubting something (which applies to climate change denialists), and on the other hand there’s the more specific definition of doubt as a function of lack of evidence for a claim. Even given the latter, climate change denialists (along with anti-vaxers, creationists, and so on) can argue that their skepticism results from a lack of scientific evidence. Of course, the evidence in favor of climate change is pretty overwhelming, but the “skeptics” get to adopt a scientific-seeming attitude on this issue and can thus argue that it is not their own wishes that drive their attitude formation.

  12. 12
    M Walton

    So, Steve, what this represents isn’t “skepticism” but “denialism” presenting itself as skepticism to gain some intellectual cover? Following the lead of their Authoritarian leaders while providing the appearance of a consistent rationalization?

  13. 13
    Steve Croker

    M Walton: yes, that’s my take. My comment was actually written before I saw yours, but I think the distinction between skeptic (scientific) and skeptic (denialist) may explain the point you made. Characterizing oneself as a skeptic, rather than a bigot/follower/denialist, can lead to (a) a more positive self image, and (b) a sense that the position taken is better justified. Of course, some people may also adopt the “skeptic” position rather cycnically – as you suggest – in order to appear more intellectually respectable.

  14. 14
    Alex SL

    Now that I think about it, the conspiracy wackos I have encountered so far were all male. Doesn’t mean that I did not meet female cranks, of course, but they were all into religion, esoterica, homeopathy or suchlike. Wonder what explains that pattern if it is one…

  15. 15

    Alex, I think if there is anything in that idea it’s pretty hard to isolate among all the other rubbish.

    With women subscribing to health nonsense, the eye might be drawn to the gaudy decorations of Big Pharma conspiracies and the like. But those embellishments surround a cake baked from the old reliable recipe, mother-knows-best well mixed with “natural”. We might note here that natural is very much a matter of personal taste. But most of it is better described as crankdom or woo-ville rather than skeptical.

    Move to climate stuff and it gets strange. You have one well-known woman blogger whose climate conspiracy notion is just one more in a dizzying spin of economic and political conspiracies (Jo Nova). There’s another woman whose approach is best described as weapons-grade tone trolling, which means that her comments are a foetid soup of vile accusations of fraud, dishonesty or worse against reputable people and organisations – but no-one ever uses naughty words – so that’s good. (Judith Curry) I’d put Nova in the crank group and Curry in the skeptic-at-any-price group. And that’s only by distorting skepticism to the dictionary option of chronic, paralysing doubt rather than a scientific or intellectually healthy thought process.

    I can’t be bothered with all those other conspiracy weirdnesses, but I notice that very few women get into the “suppression” of “new” science ideas like perpetual motion, special/general relativity denial, centrifugal force and all their de-bunked friends.

  16. 16
    Jeff D

    I suppose it’s significant that “agreement with free market principles” alone isn’t enough; one also has to “endorse conspiracy theories.” Otherwise I might have been on the path to becoming a climate change denialist.

    I wonder how much these ‘free market’ enthusiasts really understand free market economics.

    Exactly. I read Marx, A. Smith, Ricardo, Von Mises, Hayek, Keynes, Friedman, and J. K. Galbraith when I was still in high school, and (later) Kenneth Arrow, Garret Hardin, and E. F. Schumacher. It was several years after I got an honors degree in economics — which turned out to have extremely limited utility — that I kept my general agreement with “market economic principles” but dropped the pretense of “free.” Completely unregulated markets never work perfectly (or even approximately so) or free of distortions for very long: Economic actors do not have equal access to dependable information about resource availability and pricing; workers are usually not completely free to move to where more or better jobs are available; some economic actors will resort to coercion, fraud, or the use of favorable government treatment and government-assisted entry barriers whenever they have the opportunity; and prices of products do not inevitably reflect all of the significant costs of their production and consumption. Smart regulation actually helps markets work better and more efficiently. Even the Koch brothers and other plutocrats of their ilk know all of this. It just suits them to dupe and exploit the modern mass of under-informed, small-L “libertarians” and tea-partiers.

  17. 17

    “Milton Freidman, who was pushing free market solutions to problems a few decades ago, recognized that there are such things as externalities such as pollution. He advocated pollution taxes as the best way to get people to use the cheapest way to cut emmissions.”

    Of course what Friedman and his neanderthal ilk did (do) not realize is that the cheapest solution is the one that is generally least desirable and will cause the most problems in the future. If only modern market thinking would embrace the concept of investment instead of immediate expediency and cost control, we might be able to get to a point where business would look further down the road than the end of the current quarter and we could actually have coherent markets (regulated of course).

  18. 18
    John the Drunkard

    Climate deniers and woo believers share a similarly impaired capacity for judgment and evaluation. This seems to be rooted in defects of reasoning and subjective belief-formation that are hard-wired into human beings.

    Perhaps we can gain from comparing, rather than contrasting, the sources of bogus certainty. ‘Atlas Shrugged’ v. ‘Chalice and the Blade.’ Milton Friedman v. Andrea Dworkin. I am sure we can come up with many other pairings.

    Certainty of belief without justifiable sources, rejection of negative evidence, willingness to descend to scurrilous techniques to rationalize beliefs immunized against refutation.

    I think that ‘feminine’ woo-ism and ‘macho’ libertarianism are more like each other than it is comfortable to consider. The enemies of reason and freedom are not neccesarily gender-specific.

  19. 19

    John the Drunkard – great points and you really lay out properly the features of truly bad reasoning. I recall how Rand fans all say that ‘the interests of rational beings are never in conflict’ and other beliefs which not only aren’t true, but perhaps aren’t even coherent unless you accept their ready-made definitions for things like ‘rational,’ ‘conflict,’ or ‘coercion’ or ‘freedom.’ I mean, if I have to accept their definitions, of course I’m stuck with their conclusions, but that isn’t reasoning.

    I think an issue with libertarianism is the dogmatic belief that it represents the only valid political system – the basic belief is all government is bad, and that the only evil comes from government (which also denies that ‘government’ can be something people participate in.) The other one is that the only agent which can be coercive is the State (since we can all just get up and find new jobs or new places to shop with zero difficulty, plus, a State doesn’t have to be coercive – it is something you can participate in, and sometimes, a la Thomas Hobbes, the State needs to act as a mediator between people who have unequal levels of power.) It may have started out as a sensible critique of planned economies, but it seems to have simply gotten far away from any concern for plausibility or practicality.

    Sorry to digress, to get back to what I was writing, since libertarians think their ideology is more or less perfect, anything that might suggest that it could lead to problems has to be dismissed as false, or someone has to get all emotional about ‘liberty’ versus ‘slavery to the state’ (yeah, because obeying environmental regulations is the same as being forced to work in chains for 16 hours in a field.)

  20. 20
    Ian MacDougall

    Market libertarianism is about freedom of exchange of goods and services, and the desirability thereof. An analogy with exchanges in ‘the marketplace of ideas’ and the need for freedom therein is commonly made; sometimes with justification.

    But one cannot have goods and services without the economic activity which produces them. They don’t just appear out of the blue. And the production of the goods and services is inevitably regulated by the rights of private ownership of capital (extending right back into the territoriality of pre-industrial and pre-agriculateural hunter-gatherers) and of private ownership of workers. As slavery has steadily collapsed as an institution, the private worker ownership has morphed into self-ownership, though this is still far from universal.

    The ‘economic rationalist’ smoke-and-mirrors trick lies in the proposition that deregulation is always in the interest of the buyer. But in the applied reality there has been a bait-and-switch. Deregulation turns out to be selective, the selection process itself illustrating the fact that ‘economics’ only exists as an abstraction. The more concrete reality is political economy. Which is why we don’t have cut-price lawyers on every street corner, and cut-price surgeons in every hospital. Instead, we have lobbyists all over the place in every centre of government, ‘deregulationist’ or otherwise.

    The artist of the Gulley Jimson model produces art works (murals) which can be ‘consumed’ by viewers for nothing, doing the work for the sheer joy of doing it, but without right to prevent someone else coming along to the wall and defacing or painting over it. As well, a Jimson still has to eat, find paints and so on, via somone else’s economic activities.


  21. 21
    James K

    jimbaerg @ 2

    I wonder how much these ‘free market’ enthusiasts really understand free market economics.

    My guess is not many. I’m an economist myself (and a libertarian too, though not really the kind of libertarian most people think of when they think “libertarian”), and in my experience few people be they liberal, libertarian or conservative, actually get what economists are really talking about or what they really think about how the world works. Most people think markets are magic, the main disagreement seems to be whether they’re light magic or dark magic.

    It doesn’t help that most people only get exposed to the basic “spherical cow in a vacuum” stuff at high school, which no one actually thinks is true, but is necessary to set up an ideal model so you can start piling real world complications onto it.

  22. 22
    Godless Heathen

    @James K,

    They also get exposed to that kind of thing in Intro Econ in college. At least, I was.

    My favorite thing about my econ text book was that the author(s) would explain a theoretical concept and how it should work and a few paragraphs later explain why the concept wasn’t actually true in real life.

    I think that’s when I started liking econ.

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