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Depends on what you mean by “know”

Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It’s all ideology and politics, don’t you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we’d be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won’t recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

He’s reporting on the work of Dan Kahan, who has done interesting and informative work on how ideology, both left and right, distorts decision making. Motivated reasoning is a real problem, and we all need to be aware of it. But this work, at least as described by Mooney, goes a step further to argue that conservatives aren’t as dumb as they seem — that they know the science, but are using politics and identity to dictate their answers. They already know the science, so teaching them how the science actually works can’t possibly be the answer — instead, we have to work around their biases and lead them by careful wording towards the resolution of real problems. Kahan says,

The problem is not that members of the public do not know enough, either about climate science or the weight of scientific opinion, to contribute intelligently as citizens to the challenges posed by climate change. It’s that the questions posed to them by those communicating information on global warming in the political realm have nothing to do with—are not measuring—what ordinary citizens know.

I disagree. The public does not know enough. I don’t think Kahan or Mooney have a clear idea of what they mean by “know”. And I don’t think they’re recognizing that if they believe they are clever enough to trick the public into revealing their true knowledge by rephrasing questions about science, that perhaps the public is also clever enough to hide their true ideas about science in their answers.

They’ve evaluated public knowledge of science with sets of multiple choice questions phrased in two different ways, to show that the answers you get vary with the wording. First: speaking as a teacher, multiple choice questions are terrible at testing in-depth knowledge and understanding. They’re fine for evaluating basic facts, but even there, they can be gamed. Often, the strategy for answering multiple choice facts isn’t necessarily based on knowledge of the material, but understanding human nature and the psychology of the person who wrote the test — the wording of the question and the alternative answers can be a good clue to which one the instructor thinks is best.

Second, we’ve known about this phenomenon for a fairly long time. About ten years ago, I heard Eugenie Scott explain how soft polls on evolution were: that by changing the wording from “Humans evolved over millions of years” to “Dogs evolved over millions of years”, you could get a tremendous improvement in the percentage of respondents approving of the statement.

Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change “the earth is warming” to “climate scientists believe the earth is warming,” testifying to the fact, Mooney says, that they actually do know what the science says, it’s just that phrasing question wrong punches their button and causes them to reject the idea.

Bullshit. Look, I know creationist arguments inside and out; I can often finish their sentences for them, and can even cite the original sources that they didn’t know their claims came from. This does not in any way imply that I think like a creationist, that I’m ready to accept creationism, that I sympathize or agree with their position, or that I think creationism ought to be considered as a source of facts in public policy. I know what they say, but I also know all the arguments against their nonsense. That a climate change denialist is able to regurgitate what he’s heard a scientist say does not mean he is not also packed to the gills with lies and rationalizations; that he’s able to check a box on a paper exam does not mean that he won’t act against that fact in his public activities.

I’ve also talked at length, hours on end, with creationists. And no, I’m sorry, despite being able to puke up quotations from what scientists actually say, they really are grossly ignorant of evolution. Are we going to start using quote-mining as an example of the scientific process?

Another example from teaching genetics. I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment, involving Mendelian crosses of flies with different wing shapes. A little later I had the students do the exact same problem in an in-class exercise — a way to spot check whether they’d actually worked through the problem. Easy peasy, they breezed through it in class, and the students I asked could even explain the process for solving it. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I changed every mention of Drosophila to Danio, and changed the hypothetical phenotypes from wing shape to fin shape. But the numbers, the crosses, the outcomes were all copied directly from the homework. All the changes were superficial.

A third of the class bombed it.

Did these students know how to solve the problem? I suppose Mooney could claim that they knew how to do fruit fly genetics, but simply didn’t know the details of fish genetics. But I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts. It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

(For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I’m doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they’ve grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. “This wasn’t in the homework or the class examples!” is a common complaint, to which I reply, “Of course not.”)

Mooney likes to cite empirical, practical results of his approach, which is good…but unfortunately, they always undermine his premises, and he sometimes isn’t even aware of it.

Later in the paper, Kahan goes on to assert that precisely this strategy is working right now in Southeast Florida, where members of the Regional Climate Change Compact have brought on board politically diverse constituencies by studiously avoiding pushing anyone’s buttons. Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like "local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels" do not provoke a polarized response in this region. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike in Southeast Florida agree with such a statement, which references a major consequence of climate change while ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room…its cause.

I’ve emphasized that las bit, because it is so damning. What good is this approach? If you know anything about science at all, you understand that how we know what we know, the epistemology of science, is absolutely critical to our progress. You’re stuck like my students in the early part of the semester, able to tick off check boxes on a multiple choice test or follow a cookbook procedure to arrive at a specific answer, but unable to generalize or extend their knowledge to new problems (really, let me assure you though, most of them got much better at that by the end of the term!). Those respondents in Florida don’t understand the science — all the participants know is which buttons to push, which ones to avoid, with the aim of steering the poor stupid mouse through the maze to a cheese award at the end.

OK, to be fair, this is a case where Mooney is at least vaguely aware of the problem. Here’s his next paragraph.

Here’s the problem, though. Maybe this approach will work up to a point, or in certain locales (in North Carolina, the response to sea level rise is pretty different). But at some point, we really do need to all agree that the globe is warming, so that we can then make very difficult choices on how to deal with that. To save our feverish planet, it is dubious that merely having conservatives know what scientists think—rather than accepting it themselves, taking the reality into their hearts and identities—will be enough.

Very good. So why did Mooney write a whole column arguing that conservatives aren’t really as anti-science as they seem to be, that ends with an acknowledgment that, well, not knowing how reality works isn’t a good long-term strategy for responding to challenges from reality? The entire first 90% of the article is bogged down with this misbegotten notion that we can equate science understanding with checking the right alternative on a multiple choice test, only to notice in the last paragraph that oh, hey, that’s not science.

Comments

  1. raven says

    What is driving the south Florida sea level rise planning is real simple. It has nothing to do with rhetorical tricks.

    Miami is 3 feet above sea level on porous limestone where sea walls don’t work. That whole region is vulnerable.

    They are already having flooding at high tides.

  2. Sastra says

    It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

    Richard Feynman made a similar point when he wrote about what happened when he went down to South America to help teach science in a university iirc. In the middle of a discussion on physics he casually asked for an example of a real life application of a formula. The students didn’t even understand the question. It didn’t seem to occur to them that all the mathematics was describing actual events, like how water refracts light. No, physics explained physics. Get it down on paper.

    As I understand it (from Cromer’s Uncommon Sense) there was a similar problem when Greek math and science made its way into other countries like India and China. The texts were handled as if they were sacred revelations from above. So they could work the math and science up to a certain point — and then go off in directions they would never have gone off in if they had thought of physical reality as acting as the check and balance. They understood without understanding.

    I sometimes visualize accomodationist solutions in evolution as being like throwing resources into getting more homeopaths to recommend vaccination. You may win a battle — but it can’t really be for ‘science.’ It’s for a culture which is smoother on top and goes along with the scientific consensus more often.

  3. raven says

    Miami is one of USA’s top hot spots for climate change
    www. usatoday. com/story/news/nation/…/miami…florida…hot…/8803849…

    May 7, 2014 – Miami and other parts of south Florida, where streets routinely flood at … a 78% chance of severe flooding of at least 2 feet above the high-tide line. … his university found it could overwhelm the area’s flood-control systems that…

    The real danger isn’t sea level rise per se.

    It is sea level rise plus a high tide and/or plus a hurricane storm surge.

    New Orleans was fine for decades. And then one day it wasn’t.

  4. anteprepro says

    They are called denialists for a reason. It isn’t that they are JUST ignorant: it is that they actively try to dismiss what they do know because they do not like it or because they prefer conspiracy theories. And of course, people try to place the blame for their knee-jerk denials on the scientists, for making science political, when really they are dismissing it because of what political pundits are saying about the science.

    In a way that is actually analogous to their denial: Mooney knows all of this. Mooney knows that it isn’t as simple as just scientists communicating things wrong. Mooney knows that the political element was added by the denialists, not the scientists. I bet if you administered a specially phrased multiple choice test to Mooney, he would prove as much. But dismisses that knowledge, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of “Communication!”.

  5. Nemo says

    Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical.

    Is it bad that I read this and thought, “Amen”?

    Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like “local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels” do not provoke a polarized response in this region.

    Probably because people got bored before they reached the end of that sentence. Seriously, though — it starts off with “local and state officials should be involved”, and at this point everyone is nodding along, thinking “yes, that’s a good thing,” before we’ve even got to the issue. Then, “identifying steps that local communities can take,” that’s even more betterer. “[T]o reduce the risk” — yes, wonderful! “[P]osed by rising sea levels”… eh, whatever. Too much agreement has already been reached, based on the fluff, for the meat of the question to derail it.

  6. rory says

    The other glaring problem with the ‘ignore the cause, treat the symptoms’ approach being adopted in Florida is that while there may be a lot they can do locally to ameliorate the consequences of warming, there are other consequences which they can’t do much about. For example, long-term substantial shifts in climate may decimate local agriculture beyond the state’s ability to compensate (say by choosing different crops), and there’s no local solution to something like that. Ignoring the cause means at best, a partial response.

  7. dogfightwithdogma says

    Until we are able to get conservatives to accept the truth of the science, I am wondering what is wrong with using these methods to get them to support adoption of policies that are needed to combat global climate change even though they may be doing so for the wrong reasons? Why isn’t it better to use a little harmless trickery now to deal with the problem and worry later about how to convince those who have been tricked about the accuracy of the science and the conclusions drawn from that science?

  8. says

    Few things are as effective at embarrassing a teacher than repeating a problem with only cosmetic changes. My brilliant explanations did not inculcate comprehension in those students who were merely going through the motions, aping my procedures without really grasping what’s going on. These students template-driven students just want to fill in the blanks, please.

  9. leftwingfox says

    Dogfightwithdogma.: I agree with you partially, in that getting people to act on something is more important than whether they understand it completely. Hell, I see a lot of ignorance about CO2 and global warming on the left as well (like not understanding the carbon cycle when it comes to biofuel emissions).

    Unfortunately, I think the problem is that Chris Mooney spends too much time trying to convince people that the current strategies of teaching science and attacking the sources of ignorance aren’t working, but doesn’t actually have a working alternative. It’s actually reminiscent of cranks and denialists who are absolutely certain that the current theories are wrong, but don’t actually have a better working alternative.

  10. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I think Kahan’s results have been badly misinterpreted. His criteria for “scientific literacy” were absurdly low, and poor knowledge of science may well lend itself to misunderstanding of complex subjects like climate change.

    Also, reality matters. The mitigations one would adopt to treat the symptoms might be very different than those one would adopt if one really understood the causes of the problem.

  11. =8)-DX says

    I think Chris Mooney’s position was better explained in the podcast, where there was more emphasis on the actual striking result of the research – that level of general knowledge of science (education level) did not predict answers to questions viewed as political ones. Educated or scientifically literate people still ignore the science when ideology and identity come into play.

    During other interviews (one with a fundamentalist Christian climate scientist explaining GW to farmers in Texas) this was hashed out more.

    I think there is also a difference is between public science communication that Mooney and others are duing and the education approach of teachers (like PZ). A science teacher actually has a good chance of educating their students, and even public lectures often attract those interested in learning something new. But for broad public awareness of an issue, educating the public is a good goal, but not really managable, especially when ideology gets in the way.

    Thanks for the interesting and rather more rigorous look at this particular study and article.

    Also: I like that podcast =P!

  12. says

    Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change “the earth is warming” to “climate scientists believe the earth is warming,”

    Well, sure. You’ve taken a statement of fact and spun it into a statement of “opinion”. We see this all the time.

  13. says

    Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It’s all ideology and politics, don’t you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we’d be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won’t recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

    Frames are wonderful things in communication. But not every frame is useful or even desirable, and as PZ points out framing things to be nice to one group often alienates others.I have no problems framing things in friendly ways, or ways that show that I am willing to consider what people like conservatives believe. The more reasonable people in these groups are worth a reasonable and friendly first-line response. But one of the problems here is exemplified by encounters with creationists.

    You can be friendly and willing to consider what they believe all you want but there is a core group of them that will not reciprocate this, and they are often ones that are very good at maintaining the echo chambers among that group and have to be taken seriously in strategy. When you say why what they believe does not match up with reality instead of answering in ways that show that they actually considered and understand what you said (even to disagree), they literally mentally dump what you said and move on to the next belief. When you offer your beliefs on the subject in question you get responses that are scripts or show that they don’t actually know or understand what the science is.

    These folks don’t treat this as an issue of getting down to what reality is and responding in the most rational and logical ways. It’s a fight over group beliefs to them and because of this they also try to minimize and distort what their comrades learn about things. The active disrespect for expertise and knowledge comes from somewhere and ideologues, people dependent on emotional and content-free rhetoric, are a major source. Being nice to someone that is implicitly using tactics of aggression, domination, and obfuscation is not wise. These people and more neutral people with similar tendencies respect a smack down. Advocates should have more than one frame for their communication.

  14. mesh says

    @7 dogfightwithdogma

    Until we are able to get conservatives to accept the truth of the science, I am wondering what is wrong with using these methods to get them to support adoption of policies that are needed to combat global climate change even though they may be doing so for the wrong reasons? Why isn’t it better to use a little harmless trickery now to deal with the problem and worry later about how to convince those who have been tricked about the accuracy of the science and the conclusions drawn from that science?

    For one, as PZ mentioned, it alienates those who are actually involved in science by reducing it to an ideology that must be made palatable to the lowest common denominator. The public intellectual’s role as an educator becomes displaced by the drive for political spin.

    Second, such a paternalistic approach can easily backfire due to conservative spinsters weaving their own narrative. Much of the public developed their anti-science attitudes precisely because of misinformation campaigns designed to sow distrust in academia. The notion that we should slyly frame the issue to manipulate a hostile public perfectly fits the ring-wing caricature of liberals as snobs who bastardize science to frighten hard-working Americans into undermining their own interests. This only further estranges the scientific community from its audience as well as itself pleasing no one in its attempt to pander to everyone.

    Third, while this might be a method to get a hostile audience to passively accept an idea by itself it is highly unlikely to inspire them to go along with any sort of change. While one may provisionally accept climate change simply because it’s been framed as a belief among scientists rather than a proven fact they’ll have no reason to subscribe to our prescribed political action because, as Naked Bunny says, it has been reduced to an innocuous opinion that doesn’t warrant the kind of decisive response we are seeking. And, once again, it plays into the right-wing narrative of climate change just being a boogeyman invoked to scare voters into supporting liberal politics.

  15. fmitchell says

    Another problem, it seems to me, is that while (some of) the legislators and leaders of the anti-science brigade are familiar with scientific conclusions, the rank-and-file which vote them into office and give them money don’t even know that much. For example, the Koch brothers (may) know the science behind global climate change and simply not believe it or not care, but their astroturf groups are full of people who only equate the climate debate with “big government” and “job-killing laws”.

    Even worse, these people have the power to restrict education and promote a skewed version of science. The whole “academic freedom”/”teach the controversy”/”science isn’t settled” strategy builds unreasonable doubt which people fill with their own ideological and religious beliefs. Even the notion of scientific “debates” buries actual data under political he-said-she-said.

  16. says

    Sastra

    As I understand it (from Cromer’s Uncommon Sense) there was a similar problem when Greek math and science made its way into other countries like India and China. Western Europe.

    India and China (or rather the various nations occupying the area that’s now India and China) had and have perfectly good mathematical and philosophical traditions of their own, and Greek philosophy was never terribly influential in either place.

  17. Usernames are smart says

    I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment …. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I [superficially changed the question].

    A third of the class bombed it.

    Did these students know how to solve the problem? … I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts.
    — PZ

    Option number two is some of the 1/3 weren’t good at taking those kind of tests.

    I have this problem. I can know the material forwards and backwards, hell I could TEACH the class, but sit me down in front of a blank piece of paper and my mind “locks up”.

  18. unclefrogy says

    we people in the modern world are so insulated from the day to day life is a precarious proposition which is subject to change on a some what unpredictable regular basis. We have successfully mastered the feats and famine cycle with agriculture reduce weather to mostly an inconvenience except in some localized events. We have extended health and life through medicine.
    When we try to talk about how we are causing a great disruption in the stability of the climate it just does not register with the experience that things have always just continue on with little disruptions that are temporary and localized. There is no longer any perception for anything else. What ever we say it just means nothing it is just an opinion.
    uncle frogy

  19. says

    As a long-time student, this hits me right in the feels. Not the overall point of Mooney flip-flopping on science literacy, but on the point of how I learn to handle problems. It is most apparent to me in math, where I know I can find a formula and roughly recognize if a stated problem is pining for said formula, but I find it significantly, overwhelmingly harder to construct proofs. Even simple-proofs I feel I’ve completely missed some point on, as I stand at the white-board, doing what I know I should be doing, in the order I know I should be doing it, but really not knowing with any degree of confidence why it is so, and why I must do it so. It is also one of the reasons I’ve decided against studying physics, because I quickly find myself in an extremely aggravated mood, when I promptly locate a problem where I have no sense, no conceptual understanding, I can apply to make any headway at all. For me, it feels like I’ve deceived myself into thinking I know stuff, when really my knowledge and ability turns out to be quite limited. Of course, the blame does not lie squarely on the shoulders of my instructors, but stems equally from my own lazyness, when facing tough/unfamiliar subjects.

  20. imthegenieicandoanything says

    To alter the line from ED WOOD: “Chris Mooney, I thought he was dead!”

    In the sense that anyone should ever react to his presence, much less respond, this is an apt quote.

    Fuck off, CM.

  21. Jacob Schmidt says

    For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I’m doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they’ve grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. “This wasn’t in the homework or the class examples!” is a common complaint, to which I reply, “Of course not.”

    I totally get this; this is exactly how I try to learn everything. But it seems strange to me that you would present them with a consistent rut in class, only to twist it for the exams.* Generalization should occur in class, not on the fly during a (for some quite stressful) exam.

    *Admittedly, the problem you discuss only involves superficial changes, so I wouldn’t even call that a different rut.

  22. ck says

    dogfightwithdogma wrote:

    Until we are able to get conservatives to accept the truth of the science, I am wondering what is wrong with using these methods to get them to support adoption of policies that are needed to combat global climate change even though they may be doing so for the wrong reasons?

    Because the same method used to get positive support can be used for negative support, simply by changing a few of the words. Just take the example that has been mentioned above:
    “Local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels”.
    Now, “local and state officials” is too neighbourly, so we’ll change that to “government bureaucrats”. We’ll remind people that tax money will be spent by changing the “steps that local communities can take”, and we’ll throw doubt on the “rising sea levels” by reminding people that climatologists are talking about global warming:
    “Government bureaucrats should be involved in spending local tax money to reduce the risks that climatologists say are posed by global warming”
    It’s very easy. Too easy, in fact.

  23. dogfightwithdogma says

    Mesh @14

    Thanks for that reasoned and thoughtful reply. I get all you are saying.
    What then is the solution? How do we turn this around and undo the spin that the climate denialists have managed to turn into public attitude? How do we end the obstructionism? The climate isn’t going to wait for us to get our assess in gear and resolve the problem. And I am just not confident that we can start getting it turned around with reasoned debate before it is too late to avoid the problems that lie ahead.

  24. mesh says

    Unfortunately such public attitude is just a symptom of the larger problem. Not only do corporate interests fuel the misinformation campaigns, but they effectively buy politicians. Winning over the public isn’t even a solution, it’s a first step towards correcting our broken system. In any case the spinsters are just one obstacle to scientific understanding; the other big one is fundamentalism. High religiosity often goes hand in hand with science denialism. Many cannot even be receptive to the possibility that God might not be taking care of everything or that the Rapture might not be here before we face the consequences.

    Reasoned debate is slow and may not make it in time, but it’s the best we’ve got. For us to sell out in a desperate attempt to treat a symptom is no better than abandoning the cause altogether.

  25. caseloweraz says

    Brony (#13): These folks don’t treat this as an issue of getting down to what reality is and responding in the most rational and logical ways. It’s a fight over group beliefs to them and because of this they also try to minimize and distort what their comrades learn about things.

    Exactly. This is why they so often want to engage in debate, and why we hear misleading claims like “Al Gore is afraid to debate [X] on the subject.” Any such debate would shed no light on the science; it would merely show who was more glib and facile. This is why Ken Ham still writes in his blog that he wiped the floor with Bill Nye. It was why Romney’s supporters claimed he won his debates with President Obama in 2012. Objectively, both Ham and Romney lost on substance; but admitting this would undermine the whole of their group identity, so substance must be ruled out of order.

    I think the way to attack this is to constantly emphasize the essential difference between science and politics. A useful way to explain this is that even if everyone in the world came to believe the theory of universal gravitation was a huge hoax, any of them who leaped off a high building would still fall to their death.

    Of course a hard-core group will refuse to go along. No more than one attempt should be made to persuade each of them. If they want to make it tribe against tribe, we should oblige and exclude them.

    I guess Chris Mooney is motivated by a “Can’t we all get along?” feeling. That’s fine and noble, but it doesn’t always work.

  26. says

    I think the way to attack this is to constantly emphasize the essential difference between science and politics. A useful way to explain this is that even if everyone in the world came to believe the theory of universal gravitation was a huge hoax, any of them who leaped off a high building would still fall to their death.

    That will be useful, but where it can get confusing is dealing with where science intersects with the political and that connection needs to be explainable as well. Politics is political behavior and that is universal behavior related to group interaction. Scientists, AGW deniers, and creationists are all political creatures so politics should not be demonized as much as it should be explained as a behavioral tool that we use in persuasion. It should also be explained that there is honest and dishonest politics. That’s when you can start pointing out things like logical fallacies and similar things used to attack, retreat, or obfuscate about specific reality claims.

    Of course a hard-core group will refuse to go along. No more than one attempt should be made to persuade each of them. If they want to make it tribe against tribe, we should oblige and exclude them.

    I’m not sure that will work out in the long run, depending on what you mean by “exclude”. Where will they be excluded to? Their echo-chambers. Those places are where they plan, trade stories, reinforce their group emotions, and plan what to do next. They are also places where fence-sitters and people with less experience and education will be exposed to their arguments (no quotes, an emotional argument is still an argument, just not a rational or logical one. Like it or not humans are receptive to them). There still need to be people engaging the arguments in the echo chambers as a matter of long-term strategy, even if they can’t do it in the echo-chambers.

    I guess Chris Mooney is motivated by a “Can’t we all get along?” feeling. That’s fine and noble, but it doesn’t always work.

    Yep. Situational versatility is good.

  27. says

    The motivation behind this is purely ideological. There is never a case in which it isn’t ideological. Climate change deniers almost universally fall into a ideological camp that is religiously devoted to promoting free market capitalism and supports few if any regulations. If climate is changing and humans are the source, then the logical outcome is that sources of pollutants will need to be regulated. Their free market/anti-regulation ideology precludes the sensibleness of this, so instead of arguing for ways to fight climate change without regulation (even this is tantamount to doing nothing; businesses do not self-regulate), they simply pretend the problem doesn’t exist. If there’s no global warming, then there’s no need to change the status quo.

    For creationists, the ideology is clear. They don’t reject evolution because they know the science and have judged it to be insufficient. They reject it because they are ideologically committed to their religion being true, and see this something vital to their religion. For Christians, this is especially true, and they’re right to think so. If evolution is true, there is no Adam and no Eve. If there is no Adam and Eve, there is no original sin. If there is no original sin, there’s no need for redemption. If there’s no need for redemption, then Jesus’ death was meaningless and the Christian religion is false. Granted, I doubt many creationists have thought that far into it and are more interested in literalism as a result of their authoritarian tendencies. In any case, the motivation is ideological.

    On (mostly) the left, we have anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO folks who are, for whatever reason, incapable of separating their dislike of big businesses from some of the things big business produces. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to Monsanto and Big Pharma by separating shitty business practices from science, their ideological opposition to big business prevents them from conceding anything good could be produced by them. I myself am suspicious of large industries for a plethora of reasons, and my skepticism of my comrades makes me quite unpopular in some circles.

    Mooney is wrong. Ideology is an incredibly strong force and people are invested in their ideology being “true” or “correct,” even if this means rejecting facts that do not fit into their worldview. Essentially, if something contradicts my worldview, it must be false. It’s not that people understand the facts BUT they’re ideological, it’s that they don’t understand facts BECAUSE they’re ideological.

  28. ManOutOfTime says

    I am not a scientist but I am very interested in both evolution and climate change. Over the past twenty years I have read a number of books – including Darwin and everything by Dawkins – and follow this blog and Jerry Coyne’s very closely. I have been reading up on climate change for over twenty years. I know embarrassingly little about biology, evolution or climate change. More than the average American I am sure, but at the same time only enough to know how vanishingly little I truly understand. So when P Zed says people don’t understand science, I know whereof he speaks and I can only say “you got that right!”

  29. chrisdevries says

    @Jason (#30)

    This is why I thought the ‘natural capital’ model put forth a couple of decades ago was a good one. If you put a monetary value on the resources we all see as free for the taking, and include those resources in your economic system, the die-hard capitalists can keep their laissez-faire free-market bullshit while you significantly reduce your impact on the environment. Carbon credits is a good example of this. The cost of extracting fossil fuels from the ground right now contains only the money spent on equipment and labour, plus the cost of processing and transporting the fuels from source to market. But this process also produces massive volumes of greenhouse gases (not to mention the impact on the environment). If companies had to buy carbon credits from other companies/industries/people to be allowed to emit those gases, it would be more expensive to do. Energy companies would have no reason not to spend that money on carbon capture techniques instead, or better yet, invest in sustainable energy sources that are carbon neutral. Companies that did the latter would have greater long-term success and growth than companies that were content to keep pumping hydrocarbons out of the ground and charging consumers more for their fuel to make up the difference. But since consumers would be paying not only a higher fuel price but also purchasing carbon credits themselves to be allowed to release those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more people would take steps to reduce their fuel consumption, cutting into the demand and forcing suppliers to cut back on supply, hurting their profit margin. Hybrid cars manufacturers on the other hand would see the demand for their product rise, and their industry would make a killing.

    This is still capitalism, but including these factors would force the economy to change into one in which people and companies who are conscious of their carbon footprint and making major efforts to reduce it will thrive and grow in number because this is now a proven way to thrive. And crucially, the net amount of jobs would likely stay the same or rise in a remodeled economy, because necessity is the mother of invention. Finally, the new industries (and old industries that are suddenly much more profitable) resulting from such a restructuring would still probably be owned and controlled by mostly the same people who led the old energy sector, so it’s hard to imagine why anybody would be against this kind of deal. Do the same thing with biodiversity/habitat/land use credits and freshwater credits, and we could start seeing our collective impact on the Earth lessen.

    That said, monetizing these resources doesn’t solve everything; income would still be vastly unequal and the middle class would keep on shrinking, but at least we would be saving our species from total annihilation, and that’s a good start.