I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.
The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:
The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.
An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.
Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:
The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.
As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.
I very rarely republish articles from other writers verbatim here, but this piece from Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia makes some very good points about the true roots of the climate-change controversy. I’m not on board with everything Hamilton advocates here, but I think he makes a useful point about the climate-change controversy — it’s really about political ideology, not about science. He also draws an interesting parallel with the controversy over Einstein’s general theory of relativity when it first came out. So I thought it would be useful to republish the entire article — with permission. This piece comes via The Conversation.
Nature v technology: climate ‘belief’ is politics, not science
It is hard to imagine a scientific breakthrough more abstract and less politically contentious than Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet in Weimar Germany in the 1920s it attracted fierce controversy, with conservatives and ultra-nationalists reading it as a vindication of their opponents – liberals, socialists, pacifists and Jews. They could not separate Einstein’s political views – he was an internationalist and pacifist – from his scientific breakthroughs, and his extraordinary fame made him a prime target in a period of political turmoil.
There was a turning point in 1920. A year earlier a British scientific expedition had used observations of an eclipse to provide empirical confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that light could be bent by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Little known to the general public beforehand, Einstein was instantly elevated to the status of the genius who outshone Galileo and Newton. But conservative newspapers provided an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists with an axe to grind, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment among those predisposed to it.
In a similar way today, conservative news outlets promote the views of climate deniers and publish stories designed to discredit climate scientists, all with a view to defending an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe. As in the Wiemar Republic, the effect has been to fuel suspicion of liberals and “elites” by inviting the public to view science through political lenses.
At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend:
This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.
The controversy was not confined to Germany. In France a citizen’s attitude to the new theory could be guessed from the stance he or she took on the Dreyfus affair, the scandal surrounding the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of spying in 1894, whose fate divided French society. Anti-Dreyfusards were inclined to reject relativity on political grounds.
In Britain, suspicions were less politically grounded but relativity’s subversion of Newton was a sensitive issue, leading Einstein to write an encomium for the great English scientist prior to a lecture tour.
Like Einstein’s opponents, who denied relativity because of its perceived association with progressive politics, conservative climate deniers follow the maxim that “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”. Scientists whose research strengthens the claims of environmentalism must be opposed.
Conservative climate deniers often link their repudiation of climate science to fears that cultural values are under attack from “liberals” and progressives. In Weimar Germany the threat to the cultural order apparently posed by relativity saw Einstein accused of “scientific dadaism”, after the anarchistic cultural and artistic movement then at its peak. The epithet is revealing because it reflected anxiety that Einstein’s theory would overthrow the established Newtonian understanding of the world, a destabilisation of the physical world that mirrored the subversion of the social order then underway.
Relativity’s apparent repudiation of absolutes was interpreted by some as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay. There could not have been a worse time for Einstein’s theory to have received such emphatic empirical validation than in the chaotic years after the First World War.
Although not to be overstated, the turmoil of Weimar Germany has some similarities with the political ferment that characterises the United States today – deep-rooted resentments, the sense of a nation in decline, the fragility of liberal forces, and the rise of an angry populist right. Environmental policy and science have become battlegrounds in a deep ideological divide that emerged as a backlash against the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Marrying science to politics was a calculated strategy of conservative activists in the 1990s, opening up a gulf between Republican and Democratic voters over their attitudes to climate science. Both anti-relativists and climate deniers justifiably feared that science would enhance the standing of their opponents. They responded by tarnishing science with politics.
Einstein’s work was often accused of being un-German, and National Socialist ideology would soon be drawing a distinction between Jewish and Aryan mathematics. Although anti-Semitism plays no part in climate denial, “Jewish mathematics” served the same political function that the charge of “left-wing science” does in the climate debate today.
In the United States, the notion of left-wing science dates to the rise in the 1960s of what has been called “environmental-social impact” science which, at least implicitly, questioned the unalloyed benefits of “technological-production” science. Thus in 1975 Jacob Needleman could write:
Once the hope of mankind, modern science has now become the object of such mistrust and disappointment that it will probably never again speak with its old authority.
The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute – the leading denialist organisation that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy – has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist.
The association between “left-wing” opinion and climate science has now been made so strongly that politically conservative scientists who accept the evidence for climate change typically withdraw from public debate. So do those conservative politicians who remain faithful to science.
The motives of Einstein’s opponents were various but differences were overlooked in pursuit of the common foe. Today among the enemies of climate science we find grouped together activists in free market think tanks, politicians pandering to popular fears, conservative media outlets like the Sunday Times and Fox News, a handful of disgruntled scientists, right-wing philanthropists including the Scaifes and Kochs, and sundry opportunists such as Christopher Monckton and Bjorn Lomborg.
While Einstein’s theory posed no economic threat and industrialists were absent from the constellation of anti-relativity forces, the way in which climate denial was initially organised and promoted by fossil fuel interests is now well-documented. In the last several years, climate denial has developed into a political and cultural movement. Beneath the Astroturf grass grew.
This is an edited extract from Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton, published by Allen & Unwin.
Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
However, I’m meditating on a somewhat different way to articulate it. I should say that I don’t think this controversy is essentially about science. I’m not persuaded by ill-informed or politically motivated assertions, but I don’t use terms like “hoax,” “anti-science,” “pseudo-science,” or “denialism” in connection with the argument.
My current thinking is the following:
The climate change controversy is about a high-stakes struggle between science in the service of eco-socialism and misinformation in the service of free-market fundamentalism.
I’m engaged in an ongoing development of my thinking on this topic and will no doubt circle back to it. But I just wanted to pin down that idea.
I’ve noticed that some people think being religious requires you to hold certain political views. I’ve been meaning to put together a post collecting some of those ideas. I plan to add to this post as I encounter new and interesting expressions.
Gary Cass, head of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission and a former member of the executive committee of San Diego’s Republican party, says you can’t be a Christian if you don’t own a gun:
You have not just a right not bear arms, you have a duty. How can you protect yourself, your family or your neighbor if you don’t have a gun? If I’m supposed to love my neighbor and I can’t protect him, what good am I?
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association says it will hurt God’s feelings if we stop using fossil fuels:
“And you think, that’s kind of how we’re treating God when he’s given us these gifts of abundant and inexpensive and effective fuel sources,” Fischer added. “And we don’t thank him for it and we don’t use it.”
1. True Believers — People whose extremism arises from a sincere belief in the extreme ideology being promoted.
2. Needle-Pushers — Cynical practicers of realpolitik who adopt the extreme position hoping to counteract extremists on the opposing side and “move the needle” toward their own position, getting partisans in power or policies enacted that are more desirable from their point of view.
3. Knee-Jerkers — Followers who are led to back an extremist position because that position’s arguments speak to their own prejudices or harmonizes with their cultural background.
The “green movement” that seemed so powerful and dynamic just a couple of years ago has come under criticism recently, as you can see in Susanna Rustin’s recent article in the Guardian — see “Has the green movement lost its way?”
An article in the Guardian last week asked “has the green movement lost its way?” I think that is the wrong question. The right question should be “has a new, emergent culture which embraces resilience and localisation, equity and partnership, even scratched the surface of its potential?” I think the answer is a resolute no. We’ve all had a taste of that this weekend.
Having written a great deal about innovation as analyst for the ILO Institute, insights like this get my attention. Innovations often come from unexpected quarters, when people begin asking new questions and asking questions in a different way.
An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.
I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”
We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.
Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”
The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.
They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.
Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:
Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.
The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.
So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:
It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.
The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:
Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.