Reality is not decided through scientific consensus

There’s a lot of political drama now in the Netherlands, because people are -shock- -horror- beginning to figure out that addressing climate change is going to cost them a lot of money and will affect their standard of living. There’s also some drama about the fact that the impact will be unequally distributed: Poor people will see a greater increase in costs percentage wise than the rich. To me this primarily illustrates the complete lack of comprehension most people have in regards to the problem they’re faced with. They can be forgiven for this, in the sense that nobody seems to have had the urge to correctly inform them. On the right side there were people who were inventing a new ridiculous argument every day, to deny that humans are affecting the climate. On the left side, there was some acknowledgement that climate change is a problem, but the measures that were necessary were going to be more or less self-funding and eventually end up cheaper than fossil fuels anyway. In addition, by being first to implement them we would get a global competitive advantage as the whole world would seek to learn from our expertise.

This is of course, wishful thinking, but it’s necessary if you want to get people on board in the first place. Imagine you tell people that there’s a problem going to happen because of their collective actions. All of them will have to stop causing the problem and accept cuts to their standard of living as otherwise the world is doomed. This doesn’t really spur them to action, it leads to fatalism. So, to have any sense of fighting chance, you start to look at the problem with rose-tinted glasses. There are millions of people dying prematurely from air pollution, so if we get rid of fossil fuels, solving the problem pays for itself. This ignores the fact that those who die from air pollution tend to be the elderly who merely see their life expectancy reduced by a few months. Another nice argument you’ll hear a lot is the suggestion that wind turbines and solar panels will “create jobs”. If something creates a lot of jobs, that’s primarily another way of saying that labor costs are going to be high. The reason automation happens is because it drives down costs, by reducing the cost of labor. Transitioning to a green economy would mean putting that process in reverse.

I’m not arguing against a transition here, I’m arguing against the idea that the energy transition can be a free lunch, an opportunity without disadvantages. In reality it just means there’s a lot of stuff you’re doing right now that you wouldn’t be able to do. Consider for example, flying. You can put the idea of electric airplanes out of your head, the batteries can’t store enough energy. That means you’re left with biofuel, but if you’ve paid any attention you’ll have figured out that biofuel can’t be scaled to a level that allows our vehicle fleet to transition. So, air travel can’t be sustained. An intercontinental flight from Holland to Thailand is equal to roughly five years spent not eating meat. What you’re witnessing right now, under the influence of social media like Instagram, is the normalization of intercontinental recreational flight. Who is going to tell people they’ll have to give up on the airplane? Nobody can get away with that, but the problem can’t be solved without everyone giving up on air travel.

What we see instead is now that people are confronted with the price tag, they choose to slip into denial again. “Skepticism” increased over the past nine months, after the Dutch government revealed the price tag of the transition. The problem of course is that an issue like this is sufficiently complex to allow people willing to spend ten minutes of their time to come up with a case against it. If you then make sure to avoid exposing yourself to information that contradicts your beliefs, you’ve solved your cognitive dissonance. People tend to respond to this new skepticism by arguing that ¨97% of scientists agree that global warming is caused by humans¨. I understand why this argument is used, but it´s not an argument I´m very fond of, for reasons I´d like to explain here.

The heuristic you need to keep in mind when it comes to climate change denial is that there are two camps. On the one hand are people who insist that fossil fuels have caused an enormous increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which has subsequently lead to the warming of our globe and will continue to get worse in the decades ahead. On the other hand, there are people who come up with a bunch of fragmented contradictory explanations.  Perhaps the weather stations are inaccurate. Perhaps the warming is not caused by humans. Perhaps the warming is caused by humans, but it will soon stop. Perhaps the warming is actually good for us. Perhaps it’s cheaper to adjust to the warming than to try to prevent it.

The story these people offer continues to change and you’re met with moral indignation if you confront them with any of their previous accounts, as every new hypothesis they throw out stands on its own and needs to be judged on its own merit, or so they insist. There’s a simple term for this: Throwing shit and hoping that any of it will stick. The reason none of it sticks can be explained through common sense: When we’re radically changing the atmospheric composition of our planet, it shouldn’t come as a shock that it will have a radical impact on our way of life.

Greta with her dog

Another issue you need to keep in mind is that most people are pretty good at maintaining contradictory ideas in their head. Greta Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Asperger’s syndrome tends to allow people to view the world from a different, generally hyperrational, perspective. Babyboomers enjoy bashing young people who worry about climate change but continue to fly. Now they’re met with the case of Greta Thunberg, a vegan girl who does not fly, so they proclaim instead that this girl must be a puppet of one sinister group of environmentalists or another.

The far simpler explanation is that Asperger’s syndrome allows her to view the world without the rose-tinted glasses most people tend to wear. Most of us are influenced by our social context. If you’re autistic, that’s less true. Most of the world’s climatologists have no issue with flying back and forth from one conference to another. Most people without autism are so susceptible to signals from their social context, that they take decisions that contradict their own accrued knowledge.

Greta shouldn’t be seen as an exception to her generation, but more as an archetype. The reason her parents allowed her to go on strike outside her school, is because until then the girl suffered from depression and eating disorders. Every cynic who insists that this must a case of a girl being manipulated by one environmental charity or another should ask himself whether he genuinely thinks a girl and her family would lie about such illness to turn her into a celebrity.

The problems Greta suffers from are seen to some extent in her generation as a whole. All the statistics show that eating disorders, depression and autism spectrum disorders have grown more common than they were in the past. Environmentalism is not new, it has existed for generations in various incarnations. What is new is the bleak tone this episode has taken, in a generation of young people who have grown up isolated from nature. You’ll notice a lot of photos of teenage schoolgirls with “fuck me instead of the Earth” and similar slogans on their signs in a lot of right wing media, to suggest that girls will be girls and young people will use any excuse to act rowdy. The reason this happens is because Greta brings a message of grief and mourning, that is far more confronting and difficult for the people it is aimed at. It’s also why she became popular with today’s generation of young people.

The consensus fallacy: A poor argument

When people want to debate the legitimacy of anthropogenic warming, you’ll tend to see the response that 97% of scientists agree on the claim that humans are changing the climate. This in itself isn’t a very strong argument, because it inevitably implies that you should trust what most experts in a field have to say and that science is done through consensus, as opposed to scientific research. It correctly indicates that there is no scientific controversy in regards to the subject any longer. It’s generally a useful heuristic to take measures to address a crisis when most experts expect a looming catastrophe to occur, rather than to put all our bets on a minority of contrarian figures being right. Nonetheless, the evidence should stand and fall on its own merit.

I don’t like the 97% argument much, or the appeals to ¨science¨, because there’s a technocratic implication in these kind of arguments. The experts say A, the experts can never be wrong while a regular schmuck is right, so we should stop thinking and swallow as truth whatever is proclaimed to us. I don’t think those are the foundations for a healthy culture. We’ve seen sufficient cases where a society’s technocratic elite got some very important subjects very wrong. It took until the late 19th century, for germ theory to replace the then dominant explanation of disease, the theory of bad air (miasma). Keep in mind that Arrhenius discovered global warming in the 19th century, but mainstream climatologists did not agree it would become a problem until the 1960’s. Until that time, mainstream climatologists generally offered the kind of arguments that denialists offer today: Water vapor is the main greenhouse gas, the ocean will simply gobble up our carbon dioxide, a bit of global warming is good for us, etcetera.

Perhaps most importantly, we should avoid the impression that science is somehow infallible, or immune to the common human motive of greed. In the 1960’s, the sugar industry successfully paid off scientists to shift the blame for heart disease from sugar to fat. It’s not far-fetched, to suggest that authoritarian governments or wealthy industries could bribe or intimidate scientists to arrive at a particular conclusion and consensus can thus be artificially fomented. It needs to be noted that people who insist that we should simply ¨trust¨ scientists, tend to have a conflict of interest: The people most eager to get the general public to trust scientists tend to be either scientists themselves, or aspiring scientists (ie the average guy on Reddit).

What´s going to happen when people’s skepticism is responded to with ¨you should trust the experts¨, is not that people will start trusting the experts on global warming. I’ve never seen the 97% argument convince someone, it merely entrenches people further. What will happen instead is that their skepticism of global warming will translate into an overall skepticism about experts. There´s already a significant overlap when it comes to global warming skepticism, evolution skepticism, round earth skepticism and similar forms of skepticism. What we´re seeing now is a global turn against the ¨experts¨. This is how figures like Donald Trump and Bolsonaro can get elected. These are not more competent politicians than the ones we have today, but they represent an insurrection against technocracy.

Similarly, I don´t like the term ¨conspiracy theory¨, because this term suggests powerful actors per definition don´t conspire against the general population and you’re automatically discredited if you suggest such a thing. When we suggest that the Nazi government’s top politicians came up with a secret plan to exterminate the European continent’s Jewish population, we’re proposing a conspiracy theory. It’s a theory that has an abundance of historical evidence and the backing of today´s academic mainstream, but that doesn’t mean that it´s not a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is after all merely a theory that claims a group of people conspired to achieve a nefarious objective. The Holocaust is generally not referred to as a conspiracy theory, because that would imply that conspiracy theories may sometimes be correct and should thus be judged on their own merit, rather than responded to with a knee-jerk rejection if you want to keep getting invited to the cocktail parties.

In reality, conspiracy theories are not automatically wrong, but exist on an axis of credibility. The most credible conspiracy theory would be the Holocaust: Survivors have recorded their experiences, perpetrators have admitted their acts under conditions where they had no motive to admit to them, Hitler and other Nazi’s frequently hinted at the plan. Next would be a theory like the claim that the US government intentionally mislead the world by insisting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Not close behind would be the theory that Israel hired spies to blow up libraries in Egypt and thereby pull the US and Britain into a war. A little bit further behind this theory, would be the theory that the Russian FSB blew up apartment buildings and killed dozens of people, to start a war in Chechnya and grant more power to Putin.

The fact that you probably don´t think of any of these theories as ¨conspiracy theories¨, but simply as ¨theories¨ or historical events, demonstrates the power of language to manipulate the human mind. Finally, as we descend further towards the ever less credible theories, we start to see the kind of theories that are commonly referred to as ¨conspiracy theories¨. The idea that the US government was behind terrorist attacks in Italy as part of Operation Gladio to demonize communists is more credible than the idea that the US government faked the Sandy Hook school shooting to ban guns, a theory that is still slightly more credible than shape-shifting reptilian aliens controlling the world´s governments.

So where do the theories about government involvement in JFK´s assassination and the attacks of 9/11 properly fit in, to name a few examples? Probably somewhere along the axis near other theories that we normally don’t refer to as ¨conspiracy theories¨. Those theories however won’t be properly judged on their own merit until the established global American-led order starts to dissipate, just as the prophet Muhammed will not be properly judged in the Islamic world today based on his own merit. All of us are subject to this bias. Just as a college professor in Iran is not as likely to voice criticism of Islam as a professor in Russia might be, even an American democrat-voting atheist with a ¨rationalist blog¨ is still strongly bound to his cultural context and thus can’t judge events like these in an emotionally detached purely rational manner. In a similar manner however, it needs to be said that a middle-aged white man with a white-collar job and a car that is the focal point of his masculine identity can’t judge an issue like global warming in an emotionally detached rational manner. He’s probably going to give an undue amount of attention to whatever guy on the Internet will tell him that global warming must be a hoax to raise taxes.

A similar issue we run into that ties into this is tribalism. We want to fit into a group. Imagine I’m a regular Silicon Valley style ¨rationalist¨. I think science is awesome, computers are great, racism and homophobia are terrible, programming is the best job on the planet, vaccines save countless lives, 9/11 was committed by Muslims, humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor, nuclear energy is the best solution to climate change. However, one day I start reading some scientific articles and find myself arriving at the suspicion that cell phones may cause brain cancer. What do I do? Do I become the sole Silicon Valley rationalist blogger who becomes vocal about his idea that cell phones cause cancer? Probably not.

What probably happens instead is that I start looking for a way to forget what I read about, or a way to discredit it. Repeat this a million times and you’ve figured out why so many poor Americans think JFK was murdered by the US government, but very few politicians seem to feel that way. We adjust ourselves to the crowd we mingle in. Mingle in a crowd of anti-establishment ¨conspiracy theorists¨ and you´ll end up believing a bunch of dumb theories that have no merit, in addition to the original ones that pulled you in that may very well be correct. If you then bring up those theories to others, they´ll assume you´re part of that paranoid subculture and believe a bunch of dumb stuff.

It’s my opinion that every theory deserves to be judged on its own merit and people deserve to take measures that affect their own lives based on their own interpretation of the world they live in. When it comes to decisions that affect others however, our collective actions should be taken based on the weight of the evidence, as generally agreed by those who spend a lot of time studying the issue. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that humans are changing the climate. Global warming is up there with evolution, germ theory, heliocentrism and other scientific theories, in the sense that people should be free to voice their dissent, but policy should be based on the overwhelming evidence available to us.

3 Comments

  1. Every ´ used instead of ‘ causes average global temperature to rise by 1/10 of a degree. Think about what you’re doing.

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