Wednesday, April 06, 2016

An amusingly projective attempt to psychologize climate skeptics

Salty Jim from UCLA thinks AGW could not possibly be wrong so there must be something wrong in the heads of those who disbelieve.  He is one of many preachers of that gospel but see what his particular explanation is.  He says that we skeptics would be social outcasts if we accepted AGW.  It has apparently not occurred to him that exactly that situation applies to himself.  How long would he last at UCLA if he became a skeptic?

Seeing your own faults and problems in others is as old as the hills.  Sigmund Freud called it "projection" and identified it as maladjusted.  Take a bow, Salty Jim.

James Salzman is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at the UCLA School of Law and at the Bren School of the Environment.  "Salz" is Yiddish for salt

As Dan Kahan, a Yale professor who has long studied risk perception, puts it, people’s beliefs about climate change reflect not what they know but who they are. As he describes,

“Social-science research indicates that people with different cultural values — individualists compared with egalitarians, for example — disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is. People with different values draw different inferences from the same evidence. Present them with a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, for example, and they will disagree on whether he really is an ‘expert’, depending on whether his view matches the dominant view of their cultural group.”

So why does this happen? “What an ordinary individual believes about the ‘facts’ on climate change has no impact on the climate. What he or she does as a consumer, as a voter, or as a participant in public debate is just too inconsequential to have an impact… But if he or she takes the ‘wrong’ position in relation to his or her cultural group, the result could be devastating for her, given what climate change now signifies about one’s membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups. It could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between the individual people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

“In these circumstances, we should expect a rational person to engage information in a manner geared to forming and persisting in positions that are dominant within their cultural groups. And the better they are at making sense of complex information—the more science comprehending they are – the better they’ll do at that.”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has made a similar argument about how cultural priors shape our acceptance and interpretation of facts.

There may well be other explanations, and I’m eager to hear suggestions, but I think that Kahan and Haidt are both on to something that explains the views of many climate skeptics. It certainly seems that for part of the Republican party climate skepticism has become a proxy for membership. The challenge lies in how to disentangle one’s position on climate change from one’s cultural identity or sense of well-being.

In my view, this is the area with the greatest potential for engaging with skeptics and will require thoughtful re-framing of the climate debate. This is already happening to some extent, with the discussion shifting to energy security, green jobs, and strengthening community resilience. Things people from all ideological stripes can agree on.


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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