Archive for the ‘David Aaronovitch’ Category
This is a slightly modified version of an item I wrote for Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs blog; first published yesterday under the title ‘Avoiding the catastrophe of indifference’. As well as being a summary of the raison d’etre of this blog (i.e. “On the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all environmental problems”), this also provides a summary of the reasons why many formerly-placid scientists think that widespread civil disobedience now may be the only way to prevent a permanent reduction in the ecological carrying capacity of planet Earth, and significant extinction of species, before the end of the 21st Century.
In 2010, the Australian social anthropologist Clive Hamilton published Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth About Climate Change – one of the scariest but most important books I think I have ever read. Reading Hamilton’s book was one of the reasons I decided, as part of my MA in Environmental Politics, to base my dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK. In the process, I read much but Hamilton’s book was one of very few that I actually read from cover to cover – I simply did not have time to read fully all the books for my research. However, because I have a background in geology and hydrogeology, my greatest challenge was learning to think like a social scientist.
Having said all that, I must also admit I have also learnt a whole load more cary stuff as a result of subscribing to Learning from Dogs; Lester Brown’s World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse being just one that comes to mind! Then, of course, there is what David Roberts himself says, which is just as scary. I think we have good reason to be scared.
However, as Hamilton points out, we must move beyond being scared, which is simply debilitating, and channel our frustration into positive action. Because if we do not, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that civilisation may well fail. If that means engaging in acts of civil disobedience, as it has done for James Hansen and many others, well, so be it. I suspect that nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without someone breaking the law in order to draw attention to injustice: The abolition of slavery and child labour; the extension of the right to vote to all men (not just landowners) and – eventually – to women also.
This is the conclusion Hamilton reaches; that civil disobedience is almost inevitable (p.225): Just as turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, our politicians are not going to vote for climate change mitigation unless we demand that they do so.
So it was the steer from my dissertation supervisor that lead me to read David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History, and much more about psychology. All of which guided the Introductory section of my dissertation, which summarised the philosophical roots of scepticism, the political misuse of scepticism, and the psychology of denial; as summarised on my blog recently (starting here). This then is an elaboration of the last of those topics, the psychology of denial. Indeed, it formed the preamble to the concluding chapter of my dissertation (not previously published).
To help me research this (to me unfamiliar) subject, my dissertation supervisor sent me a PDF copy of a paper written by Janis L. Dickinson in 2009 and published in the Ecology and Society journal. It was called ‘The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change’ and dealt with a challenging, almost taboo subject, namely our own mortality. Despite my initial reluctance to learn about psychology, the more I read the more I realised just how central psychology was to explaining why we humans have failed to address the problem of climate change. As such, I eventually summarised the work of Dickinson, together with other sources of material, in the following manner:
In considering reasons for the collective human failure to act to prevent anthropogenic global warming (AGW), a number of authors appear to have been influenced by Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973). For example, Aaronovitch proposed that we try to avoid the “catastrophe of indifference” that a world devoid of meaning or purpose represents (p. 340). Hamilton suggested that climate disruption “has the smell of death about it” (p. 215).Janis Dickinson elaborates a little more, exploring what she describes as “…one of the key psychological links between the reality of global climate change and the difficulty of mobilizing individuals and groups to confront the problem in a rational and timely manner”, then referring to what psychologists call terror management theory (TMT) – Dickinson also categorises denial of climate change; denial of human responsibility and immediacy of the problem as proximal responses (Dickinson 2009).
Furthermore, as referenced here, both Dickinson and Hamilton suggest that other distal TMT responses, such as focussing on maintaining self-esteem or enhancing self-gratification, can be counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Dickinson summarises the recent work of Tim Dyson by saying “[b]ehavioral response to the threat of global climate change simply does not match its unique potential for cumulative, adverse, and potentially chaotic outcomes” (ibid).
Based on my research into the most frequently used arguments for dismissing the scientific consensus regarding climate change, I eventually summarised my findings (in the Abstract to my dissertation) as follows:
Having analysed the output of such UK-based Conservative think-tanks (CTTs), along with that of scientists, economists, journalists, politicians and others, it would appear that the majority of CTTs dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus, whereas the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories; the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion; and politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist or economic arguments for inaction.
As I find myself saying quite frequently, the most persistent arguments against taking action to mitigate climate change are the economic ones.
However, as all the authors mentioned have suggested, or at least inferred, I think it is undoubtedly true that the most potent obstacle to people facing up to the truth of climate change is our psychological reluctance to accept responsibility for something that is obviously deteriorating – namely our environment!
Nevertheless, all is not yet lost. We do not all need to go back to living in the Dark Ages to prevent societal and environmental collapse but we do need to accept a couple of fundamental realities:
1. Burning fossilised carbon is trashing the planet. Therefore, fossil fuel use must be substituted in every possible process as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately, it is not substitutable in the most damaging process of all; aviation. That merely increases the urgency of substituting where we can (i.e. power, lighting and temperature control).
2. Poor people in developing countries have a legitimate right to aspire to having a more comfortable life but the planet definitely cannot cope with 7 to 10 billion people living like we do in the “developed” countries.
Once we accept these realities, we will learn to use less fossil fuels and, if we can become self-sufficient using renewable energy sources, we can have a flat-screen TV in every room and leave them on standby and the A/C on full power 24/7 and still have a clear conscience. However, we must get off fossil fuels ASAP.
This is re-posted from my old Earthy Issues blog on the MyTelegraph website last year.
Andrew Montford, the author of Hockey Stick Illusion, is a Chemistry graduate of St Andrews University, a practicing professional Chartered Accountant, and the creator of the sceptical Bishop Hill blog, who wrote his book after being directed (via Tim Worstall) to Stephen McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog. However, whereas neither Montford nor Worstall is a scientist, Canadian mining consultant McIntyre and economist Ross McKitrick are two of the key players in the so-called Hockey Stick (MBH98) Graph controversy.
Despite the title and focus of the book on the MBH98 graph, Montford’s supposed “conspiracy” is actually rooted in the foundation of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in 1950; and the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. As such, Montford chooses to see something sinister in the fact that, having been instructed to review the state of knowledge and tell governments what the implications are for humanity, the Conference issued a ‘Call to Nations’ (for full advantage to be taken of man’s knowledge of climate… and for potential anthropogenic changes to climate to be foreseen and prevented). Here, according to Montford, the scientists supposedly saw… “a source of funding and influence without end” (p.21-2).
With regard to the MBH98 graph itself, Montford also makes it clear at the outset that this was the inevitable product of a much earlier decision that the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) needed to be got rid of:
“Climate science wanted big funding and big political action and that was going to require definitive evidence. In order to strengthen the arguments for the current warming being unprecedented, there was going to have to be a major study, presenting unimpeachable evidence that the [MWP] was a chimera” (p.30).
Thus, an Accountant set out to summarise attempts by a Mining consultant and an Economist to discredit the work of a team of multi-disciplinary Scientists: As such, is it so unreasonable to question the motives of the non-scientists involved? Why do they find it necessary to question the integrity of the scientists? Once again, the answer (a desire to deny our responsibility for anthropogenic climate disruption [ACD]) accords with David Aaronovitch’s explanation for conspiracy theories: We believe in them to make ourselves feel better about – and/or less responsible for – bad things that happen… But the story does not end there: The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) then asked this Chartered Accountant to write a report on the Climategate inquiries for them!
What is the point of asking a non-scientist to investigate such a complex subject as international, multi-disciplinary, research into something as complicated as global climatology? Be that as it may, Montford unsurprisingly found “evidence” of a state-sponsored conspiracy to provide an excuse to tax people more heavily.
Sadly for the GWPF and Montford; nobody really takes them seriously. Montford’s GWPF report was considered in a further review of the matter by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Summary of which (as published on 25 January 2011) concluded:
“The disclosure of data from CRU has been traumatic and challenging for all involved. While we have some reservations about the reviews which UEA commissioned, the key point is that they have made a number of constructive recommendations. In our view it is time to make the changes and improvements recommended and with greater openness and transparency move on.” (p.3)
As with the 9/11 Truth Movement, the only way to perpetuate the conspiracy theory explanation for the consensus regarding ACD is to continually implicate more and more people in it…
My ‘Questions for Dr Richard A Muller’ (26 October 2011); and
Robin McKie’s review of Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars in The Guardian newspaper in March this year.
Connecting the dots – the story concludes…
This is the third and final post re-visiting points made in the introduction to my MA dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK (as summarised on my About page), which are (1) the philosophical roots of scepticism (monday); (2) the political misuse of scepticism (yesterday); and (3) the psychological causes of denial (below).
The psychological causes of denial
When Leon Festinger published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, he introduced it by citing the illogicality of someone continuing to smoke cigarettes even though they know it is bad for them (i.e. something it took over 50 years to get tobacco company executives to publicly admit). He suggested that the discomfort this knowledge causes makes people try to rationalise or justify their behaviour. Furthermore, when faced with such discomfort (i.e. dissonance), he concluded that people will also actively avoid exposure to information likely to increase their discomfort; and seek solace in the company of those that reinforce their prejudice.
Today, the modern equivalent is continuing to burn fossil fuels even though we know that doing so is damaging the Earth’s climate. In particular, it is insane to take advantage of melting Arctic sea ice to extract previously-inaccessible crude oil, when we know that burning this additional fossil fuel (rather than finding an alternative source of energy) is going to aggravate an already growing problem. Listen to the arguments of Greenpeace International Director Kumi Nadoo (from 0:50) in this brief video:
Does this not make you feel uncomfortable?
David Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable“; (a.k.a. ‘Occam’s razor’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be true’). He reviews a large number of modern conspiracy theories (such as those surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the assassination of President Kennedy, the accidental death of Princess Diana, and the terrorist attack of 9/11) and draws a number of conclusions together under the title ‘Bedtime Story’ (which hints at the nature of his overall thesis); namely that we invent conspiracy theories to make ourselves feel better and/or to absolve ourselves of responsibility for things that did not go the way we would have wanted.
Therefore, if cognitive dissonance is the cause, confirmation bias is the resultant effect: By being selective in what you read or who you listen to, you will receive only messages that you want to; ones that enable you to remain “comfortable“. You see only what you want to see; and believe only what you want to believe.
Unfortunately, in any large-scale disagreement, people on both sides of an argument will often accuse the other party of confirmation bias. However, if you continue to reject the vast majority of empirical (i.e. observational) data; in favour of an extreme minority of data capable of supporting an alternative hypothesis, I am afraid the most likely explanation is that you are suffering from cognitive dissonance. Insisting that you are right and everybody else is wrong; or that everybody else is deluded, incompetent or mendacious just is not credible (especially if you are unqualified to comment and/or being paid by an oil company to spread misinformation). See Denial… is not a river in Egypt! (20 June 2012).
Ben Goldacre has pointed out that “only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at driving a car…” Dr Tari Sharot has recently provided an interesting further twist on this statistical certainty by describing what she has called Optimism Bias. Here is Dr Sharot explaining her research at TED…
Sharot has uncovered evidence that humans tend to be unduly optimistic. She suggests that optimism is an evolutionary survival mechanism (because giving up on escaping a predator would be likely to result in being caught and eaten): Using an MRI scanner to monitor brain activity, Dr Sharot has accumulated a large body of evidence that indicates that:
We assimilate new information that proves we are being unduly pessimistic; but
We ignore any new information that proves we are being unduly optimistic.
If so, which one are you doing?
Polite Reminder (to those still in denial about being in denial)
Record-breaking rainfall in the UK, unprecedented storms and temperatures in Washington DC, record-breaking droughts, floods, landslides, and bush-fires all around the world… Will the fake sceptics admit they are wrong when we see 1-in-100 year floods every 5 years? Or must we wait until they are an annual feature? Just how much longer must we wait for people to admit they are wrong; and that this is not normal? The world may not be about to end but, are the signs that it is past its best not clear enough to see? This is not random weather; this is what happens when we ignore what scientists have been saying for over 150 years.
Please Connect the Dots!
I concluded last week by reviewing the insane ramblings of James Delingpole, the person who coined the term ‘Climategate’ in 2009; declaring that it might be “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’”. Me thinks he was a wee bit premature. Moreover, the repeat of the stunt two years later may well mean that the whole thing has been a spectacular own-goal for the corporately-sponsored global campaign to perpetuate doubt regarding climate science; and prevent effective legislative action being taken to mitigate it. With any luck, the Heartland Institute’s “Denialgate” (more on this later in the week) will finish this dubious ‘joint enterprise’ (as those in the UK might legitimately call it) completely.
Climategate 1.0 and – particularly 2.0 – proved nothing other than the mendacity of those who want to discredit climate science and scientists. Apart from some understandable frustration with FOI requests and poor housekeeping by scientists, the actual science they had done was completely vindicated. Furthermore, now that the boot is on the other foot, of course, the Heartland Institute don’t like it one bit.
James Delingpole is so mired in conspiracy theory that, as is often the case, it can only be sustained by widening the ‘circle of distrust’ as more and more conflicting evidence pours in. I am therefore not surprised that Mark Lynas could not bring himself to finish reading James Delingpole’s second version of Watermelons. It is, from start to finish, an utterly-ridiculous inversion of reality and to believe even one bit of it, necessitates a global conspiracy of unprecedented proportions; now encompassing 1000s of research scientists, and hundreds of professional and academic institutions, governments, the UN, the WMO, and the IPCC. With regard to the latter, it just cannot be ignored that when it was set-up by Ronald Reagan et al, it was deliberately made impotent by requiring that the content of all its reports be subject to line-by-line government review and/or veto.
Therefore to turn around now and claim the IPCC is part of an alarmist conspiracy is patently nonsensical: On the contrary, because it was castrated at birth, the IPCC has been consistently overly-optimistic and under-stated the probable scale of the problem we are causing and the urgency of the need to do something about it. Furthermore, for similar reasons of political expediency, the UNFCCC set off down the wrong road 20 years ago – in pursuing emissions reductions rather than carbon taxes.
So, I really do hope that the Heartland Institute (and all the other Conservative Think Tanks) that have been consistently “acting against the public interest by promoting environmental skepticism” (see Peter Jacques et al 2008, 2009) will now be prosecuted to the maximum extent permissible under Federal Law. Maybe now we will finally get the Climate Change Denial movement in Court in the same way as the ‘Tobacco Smoke is not Dangerous’ outfit was 6 years ago?
If anyone is still in any doubt about any of the above, I really do think you need to read Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, except, of course you won’t will you, because he is part of the conspiracy. Dooohh, how could I be so stupid!
Unfortunately for their adherents, I think David Aaronovitch (Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History) was right: Conspiracy theories are history for losers; those prone to abdications of responsibility; and/or those that can’t deal with the harsh realities of a world in which nasty things happen to nice people.
It has occurred to me that this is a very profound and important question for our times. I suspect that most people would put having an open mind up there alongside not killing people, but is it? Having an open mind should not be confused with being tolerant and/or flexible; and we cannot afford for it to be synonymous with being undecided (but more on that later).
For an individual to have an open mind, it is first of all necessary for that individual to believe that he or she has the requisite knowledge and understanding, or intellectual and analytical faculties, to assess information (if a valid conclusion is to be reached). This is OK if the question is, “Have a listen to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and tell me whether you like it or not?” However, this is not OK if the question is, “Do you think we should accept the settled opinion of the vast majority of climate scientists who say we face an environmental catastrophe if we do not now act to prevent it?”
I am not a climate scientist, so why should I suppose that I can second-guess their opinions? Therefore, any non-climate scientist who rejects the consensus view (or indeed denies its existence) must be some kind of conspiracy theorist! How can anyone claim to have an open mind if, all the time, a little voice in their head is telling them that they are being lied to? But, you may say, what are we to do if both sides of the [supposed] debate over the validity of climate science claim that the other is involved in folly, error, or deceit…? Indeed, this is what leaves most people having no fixed opinion. However, as I said on this blog a few months ago:
“There is simply no evidence for [a] left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer). Whereas, there is a great deal of evidence for a right-wing conspiracy to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).” [Quoted from my 'To all who say AGW is junk science' (4 October 2011)] (N.B. For AGW, please now read anthropogenic climate disruption [ACD])
I believe it is that simple. This is because the marketplace of ideas is a nonsensical fallacy. Irrespective of how earnestly they are cherished, all opinions are not equally valid. Some people really do know better than we do. I think it is time we all accepted this as fact. As David Aaronovitch says in his Voodoo Histories – How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped modern History (2010), if all opinions are equally valid “…then we are lost… Relativism doesn’t care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic” (page 335). [See this quoted in context in my 'All that is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”' (16 August 2011)]
Therefore, if we indulge it, the marketplace of ideas ultimately demands that non-scientists be allowed to act as judge and jury over complex scientific matters that they do not really understand. This is exactly what most people who dissent from the consensus view of climate change insist is their right. Indeed, this is exactly what James Delingpole (JD) asserted should happen a year ago on a BBC TV programme “Meet the Climate Sceptcs”. However, this is illogical and completely insane. (N.B. There is a link to a video clip and partial transcript of JD’s interview with Sir Paul Nurse from my marketplace of ideas post linked to above). Meanwhile, though there may rarely (if ever) be certainty in science, we always have probability; and probability becomes greater when observations match or exceed theory and/or predictions. This is where we are today with climate science.
The time for indecision has now passed.
What we need is the wisdom to know – and be comfortable with – the limit of our own expertise and, therefore, to know when it is appropriate to defer to a higher authority. Although it was a little tongue-in-cheek, this was the point I sought to make in my AGW – What would Jesus do? (18 September 2011): However, even if we could get all the greatest intellectual minds together and give them all the information to help them decide what we ought to do, would we listen? Or do we rate our own opinions higher than them; as well as all the experts?
This is why climate change denial reduces either to ‘marketplace of ideas’ thinking or to conspiracy theory: But, as I said, there is only one conspiracy and it is not a theory; it is a well-documented historical fact. This was probably best summarised on my very first substantive post on this blog: ‘Sceptical economists are intellectually bankrupt’ (10 August 2011).
That leaves us with a decision to take as to whether we are going to listen to the marketplace of ideas or listen to voices of authority. Our decision could have enormous consequences because, until we all insist that our politicians demand that action be taken, our politicians will continue to be controlled by the vested interests of big business and the fossil fuel lobby. Again, this is not conspiracy theory; it is well-documented fact.
This too is something upon which you should not have an open mind.
As David Aaronovitch wonderfully demonstrates in his 2010 book, Voodoo Histories, people who believe conspiracy theories see false flag operations everywhere; the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the assassination of JFK, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the sinking of the USS Liberty, the outrage of 9/11…
Aaronovitch also suggests a variety of reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories; chief among them being to make history seem more reasonable, and to make reality seem more bearable. In other words, conspiracy theories are history for losers; and/or an abdication of any possible personal culpability for anything unpleasant we see in the world.
It therefore seems most odd (to me at least) that some people could claim that promotion of concern regarding the real and present danger of anthropogenic climate change (AGW) is itself a conspiracy because, if it is, it does not fit this mould. On the contrary, even if any of the above-mentioned historical events had been false flag operations they would all be totally eclipsed by the denial of AGW; which must surely be the greatest and most serious false flag operation in human history?
As well as hoping that people will not attack me for my scepticism regarding their favourite conspiracy theory (at least not without reading Aaronovitch’s book), I also hope that cognitive dissonance will not prevent them from soberly considering who it is that has been lying to them for the last 30 to 40 years:
– Is it the UN, the WMO, the IPCC, the vast majority of relevantly-qualified scientists, and now the majority of the world’s elected politicians?
– Is it the Fossil Fuel Lobby; the energy companies, and the business-elites; whose future prosperity is predicated on the continuance of business as usual, the uninterrupted consumption of natural resources, the production of things with built-in redundancy; and the avoidance of any or all difficult questions?
If it wasn’t for the fact that I am now (post-Aaronovitch) very wary of invoking conspiracy theories (other than when they are clearly based on facts and not just theory), I would say that James Delingpole himself has ensured that my laptop will not allow me to comment on anything on the Telegraph and My Telegraph websites; but such madness would be worthy of inclusion in the next edition of Voodoo Histories itself.
What was that? Oh, you want to know what I mean when I refer to a factual conspiracy to deny AGW is happening; rather than that imagined to claim it all as a myth? If so, you’d be wanting then to read Jacques, P. et al (2008), ‘The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’ in Environmental Politics, Volume 17 (3), pp.349-85.
However, if that sounds too much like peer-reviewed scientific literature for you, please see my “Wake up and smell the coffee” instead.
This can be seen in a UK education system that has been compromised by left-wing progressive ideas that have been repeatedly tried and found wanting; and yet we keep trying them – why is that?…
The so-called “marketplace of ideas” is a product of a postmodern world that has been over-run by all-pervasive, morally-bankrupt, relativism. It is – as David Aaronovitch points out in the conclusion to his Voodoo Histories book (yes I am back to that again!) – the root cause of the paralysis that prevents many people from resolving their ambivalence towards climate change: “If all narratives are relative, then we are lost… Relativism doesn’t care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic” (2010, p. 335).
Thus, the curse of relativism convinces non-scientists that their opinions are just as valid as those of scientists; and erodes respect for all reasonable authority. In this context, the serial failing of our educational system over recent decades (in stealing from teachers all effective sanctions and forms of punishment for errant behaviour) has merely compounded the problem.
Somehow, our society needs to re-discover its respect for authority; and realise that all ideas do not have equal merit. Because if it does not do so, we are doomed to a future in which the topsy-turvy thinking of people like James Delingpole will hold sway. For example, in a remarkably frank interview with Sir Paul Nurse, as broadcast on a BBC Horizon programme entitled Meet the Climate Sceptics on 24 January 2011, Delingpole admitted that:
– he believes concern about climate change is being driven by a “political agenda” seeking “control” over people;
– “the peer review process has been perhaps irretrievably corrupted” (presumably he meant ‘discredited’?) by Climategate;
– Science should now be assessed by “peer-to-peer review” over the Internet by thousands and thousands of people including “people like me [i.e. him!] that haven’t got a scientific background”.
When Nurse queried the legitimacy of this [non-peer review] process, by asking if he would or could read peer-reviewed scientific literature, Delingpole’s response was stupendously illogical: “It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed science papers because… I haven’t got the scientific expertise… I am an interpreter of interpretations…” [Some might argue that one or two comments posted 6 months ago in response to this particular youtube video of the interview seem to have got the measure of JD; but I could not possibly comment!]
However, if we acquiesce in allowing such relativism to be dressed-up as seeking the common interest (i.e. populism), we will soon be so far up an excrement-filled channel without a means of propulsion that the only viable means of employment left for those of us concerned for the welfare of our environment may be to open a waste to energy (biogas) plant!