Why Culture Matters

By Keith Kloor | October 25, 2011 2:52 pm

I’m very much intrigued by a paper published this week (by Simon Donner) in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It touches on themes that are of longstanding interest to me.

I have a short riff on Simon’s paper at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change
MORE ABOUT: climate change
  • Hector M.

    “Disbelief” in climate change on the part of public opinion (which may arise from traditional beliefs, e.g. religion, or from political-ideological commitments, or even from the desire to protect economic interests) should be distinguished from elaborate rational arguments about the scientific validity of SOME specific claims of climate science (e.g. the numerical value of climate sensitivity, or the use of paleo-dendro-climatology to estimate past temperatures) is frequently not made. The ideological, traditional-religious, or economic roots of disbelief may also operate in favor of “belief”: it is easy to figure out that certain frames of mind may be prone to believe that “the planet is in danger” or that “man harms the environment”, just as other frames of mind may lead to the opposite belief.
    But none of these frames of mind is able to produce (or dissect) a complex climate model, or to analyze the statistical measures of skill backing the validity of such model, or the possible effect of clouds on climate, or the potential effect of CO2 on the formation of clouds. These matters are not discussed much (though often echoed) in popular media or in responses to public opinion polls. They are rather the kind of stuff that preoccupies both mainstream climate scientists and scientific “skeptics”. Conflation of mainstream climate science with “left-wing liberalism” and skeptical views with “right-wing conservatism” or with “fossil-fuel industry interests” just obscures and confuses the scientific debate. The correlation, on the other hand, is not perfect: the “left” in developing countries is often in favor of development and oppose attempts by developed countries to impose restrictions to development based on an climate change policy agenda (this is, for instance, the situation in Brazil, even if both ends of the spectrum are strongly in favor of, e.g., protecting the Amazon forest). (It is also the predominant position in the Communist Party of China, hardly a right-wing free-market bunch). Separating the issue of “belief”, ideology and religion from the issue of scientific assessment would do great service to the analysis of climate and the design of adequate climate policies.

  • Michael Larkin

    Of course, others might see more sense in this: “¦climate “educators” and “communicators” are ignoring deeply held beliefs that influence climate alarmism.

  • harrywr2

    it’s our brain that’s the biggest problem
    For any species to survive it has to develop a mechanism for ‘constructive’ adaptation. For humanity we have self selecting control groups.
    Two groups see’s a strange animal, one claims it’s a man eating wolf,the other claims it’s a harmless dog. Whether or not it’s a wolf or a dog will be determined  one group attempting to pet the ‘dog’ while the other stands by and watches the ‘crazy fools who are about to be eaten by a wolf’.
    Fortunately or unfortunately, the fact that we will always have a ‘control group’ on every single issue means unanimous collective decision making isn’t possible.

  • Menth

    (Cross-posted from the Yale site)

    “In many cultures, the weather and climate have historically been viewed as too vast and too grand to be directly influenced by people.”

    Donner makes much of the distinction between cultures believing society affects the weather via morality and ritual(common) as opposed to people believing society affects the weather directly via physical means(not common).

    Basically he’s saying that people are predisposed to believing that they cannot affect the weather because god controls the weather not humans.

    While I found much interesting in Donner’s paper I disagree with the degree to which he plays up this “distinction”. I submit that the common predisposed view is still that humanity affects the weather by pleasing god via adhering to moral codes and ritual. While this may not be “direct” in the strictest sense it still implies that how we behave morally as societies will affect the weather we get. This is the essence of what morality is: a system of shared beliefs and values that when adhered to will promote the continued flourishing of the society. Deviation from morality results in bad weather and vice versa.

    The world is chaotic and fraught with danger, the human brain abhors uncertainty and thus seeks patterns. We prefer a wrong explanation to no explanation at all. The scientific rationalism of the past three centuries has begun offering us better explanations of the world around us but I believe it is difficult to understate the continued effect morality has on coloring our interpretation of the world. Donner limits the exploration of those INCLINED to believe in climate change due to cultural factors to a single paragraph and implies it is relegated to more radical sections of society. I think he downplays this tendency.  From anecdotal experience I can tell you that there are plenty of people (intelligent people) who believe in climate change and don’t have a very good understanding of it at all. Now you could assert that this is because they rightfully believe in the trustworthiness of scientific institutions but as documented elsewhere often these people hold very contrary views on vaccinations, GMOs, Aspartame etc. Is it possible that these people too are subject to certain cultural predispositions that skew their ability to evenly parse the world at large?

    That said, I agree; culture matters.

  • EdG

    Also cross-posted from the Yale site.

    Yes, culture matters in the ‘climate change debate.’ Always has.
       “The Age of Witch-Hunting thus seems pretty congruent with the era of the Little Ice Age. The peaks of the persecution coincide with the critical points of climatic deterioration. Witches traditionally had been held responsible for bad weather which was so dangerous for the precarious agriculture of the pre-industrial period. But it was only in the 15th century that ecclesiastical and secular authorities accepted the reality of that crime. The 1420ies, the 1450ies, and the last two decades of the fifteenth century, well known in the history of climate, were decisive years in which secular and ecclesiastical authorities increasingly accepted the existence of weather-making witches. During the “cumulative sequences of coldness” in the years 1560-1574, 1583-1589 and 1623-1630, again 1678-1698
    (Pfister 1988, 150) people demanded the eradication of the witches whom they held responsible for climatic aberrations. Obviously it was the impact of the Little Ice Age which increased the pressure from below and made parts of the intellectual elites believe in the existence of witchcraft. So it is possible to say: witchcraft was the unique crime of the Little Ice Age.”

  • TimG


    These tangents always miss the point.
    Climate change policy is a quetion of values. Full stop.

    There are a certain people who are so risk adverse that they cannot stand the idea of doing nothing to reduced or eliminate that risk. 

    There are others that can live with the risk and feel the harms caused by the policies outweigh any risks.

    No amount of ‘outreach’ or ‘education’ is going to bring these people together. It is insulting and naive to suggest that it is even possible.

    The only way to get concrete action on CO2 is to provide alternatives that do not require governments to fund them via regulation or subsidy.


  • Jack Hughes

    Environmentalism is a modern-day religion with its own myths, saints, devils, rituals, bizarre abstract concepts like “food miles” and “decarbonisation”.

  • jeffn

    TimG- I think those are almost good points but it’s far less black and white than that. There are more people who “cannot stand the idea of doing nothing” while simultaneously believing that the “harms (such as continued economic growth) caused by the (effective) policies outweigh any risks.” That is not a “values” position in any way other than a political value.
    For example- where do you put someone who “believes in” catastrophic global warming but rejects clear solutions (nuclear, natural gas) for unlikely non-solutions (population control, treaties that exempt major emitters, tax hikes with minimal expected results)? Are they a “can’t stand inaction” or a “can live with the risk” person?
    I think this story is more interesting- a majority in Canada and England favor reflecting sunlight to cool the planet. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-10/most-public-supports-geoengineering-research-survey-shows
    So… Here is a group that buys the central argument of global warming – Earth in imminent peril etc etc etc ad infinitum “Well…” is the collective response of the climate concerned- “not that much peril. Just, you know, need to raise taxes a bit kind of peril”

  • huxley

    Donnner’s paper strikes me as yet another sortie in the great liberal program to explain conservative resistance in terms of mental deficits and to discover the psychological levers necessary to pry conservatives loose from their foolish stubbornness.

    If one is a conservative on the receiving end of the Donners of the world, this program comes across as more than a bit condescending and maddening.

    I don’t think liberals (and climate scientists are mostly liberal) understand conservatives nearly well enough. I can’t imagine Donner’s anthropological approach (“We understand that you are in the grip of age-old cultural beliefs that God controls the climate, not humans, and we will patiently help you to shed such superstitions and join us in the 21st century to mitigate climate change”) is going to work.

    Here’s Jonathan Haidt, a liberal psychologist, who has some insight on this problem:

    Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” [Haidt] told me in a phone interview.

  • hunter

    The self-irony of Hector’s post is, I am certain, missed by Hector and those who agree with him.
    Another way to look at Haidt’s comments is that conservatives are tolerant and secure in their self image and beliefs, and are thus able to understand and empathize with those who disagree with them far better than the less tolerant liberals.

  • huxley

    hunter @ 10: I couldn’t tell what Hector M’s prolix comment was about, other than Hector seemed to have learned to write in academia, judging by his dense, impenetrable style. For all I know his comment might have been a brilliant parody a la the Sokal Affair.

    I wouldn’t presume that conservatives are “tolerant and secure in their self image and beliefs.” My take is that conservatives are constantly hammered without consent or respite by the mainstream media, academia, and Hollywood on liberalism thus conservatives know the liberal shtick chapter and verse.

    Liberals can live in bubbles for most of their lives without encountering any real conservatives or conservative POVs aside from the cartoonish versions that liberal commentators are all too willing to supply.

    Therefore we have the typical belief from the climate orthodox that it’s just a matter of finding the right “frames” for debate to bring the stupid, superstitious conservatives around, which is what Donner is all about.


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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