When Will the Lizard Brain Act on Climate Change?

By Keith Kloor | July 24, 2012 11:30 am

The contradictions in the climate debate make my head hurt. For years, we’ve been hearing that one of the biggest impediments to action is that people aren’t sufficiently alarmed and informed about global warming. And that this owes, in large part, to a collective media failing. Here’s Joe Romm in 2010:

The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse.  The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.

I don’t agree with this assessment; on the whole, there is ample evidence that belies Romm’s broad brush. Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community. (How journalism is responsible for the failure of 20 years of international climate talks escapes me.) In any case, whoever/whatever is at fault, a bigger problem implied by Romm is the lack of “rational public discourse.”

But in recent years social scientists and cognitive researchers have been telling us that our brains are not equipped to respond rationally to climate change, which is now widely understood to be a “wicked” problem. Several days ago, this theme was discussed  in a NY Times piece:

We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.

“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

What he means by that is that our evolutionary brains are not built to deal with climate change. The danger signal that evolved in response to immediate threats to our survival through much of human history isn’t activated by the diffused and delayed impacts of greenhouse gases. To understand this is to understand that our behavior–even in the present technologically advanced era–is largely governed by evolutionary forces.

So if hostile aliens invaded the earth today I imagine the world would instantly come together in common cause. So far, the looming threat of climate change has not done that. Will it anytime soon? Unlikely.

But back to that Times article. For some reason I cannot fathom, it triggered an angry reaction from Romm. In short, he argues that the piece glossed over the political and ideological obstacles to climate action. Instead of blaming politicians, the media and the “anti-science pro-pollution ideologues” (you know who you are!), we were

subjected to a bunch of psychoanalysis and social science research about how we all have a mental block to solving the climate problem.

I think I know who has the mental block here.

I’m also starting to wonder if every article on climate change should carry this disclaimer: “This message was not approved by Joe Romm. It may not emphasize the full scope of the climate change-triggered apocalyptic death spiral of the human race, and it may not fully emphasize the full culpability of journalists, climate deniers, and all Republicans. May the climate Gods have mercy on my soul.”

Seriously, as one commenter at Romm’s site says, the author of the Times piece

wasn’t undertaking to comment on politics, or acting as an apologist for why a climate bill wasn’t passed. She wasn’t drawing a sharp moral judgment call between us, the people, and the politicians in Washington. It is a classic case of “our” blog looking for a difference of opinion “” a reason to take off the gloves “” when one did not exist.

So, I don’t see the purpose or the advantage gained from jumping down the throats of every individual who comments on some aspect of climate change who does not also, first and foremost, parrot the particular theme “” federal political inaction, is it? “” “everyone” here wants to hear.

Now I’m not saying that politics isn’t an important part of the equation. Perhaps the 2009 cap & trade legislation that died in the U.S. Senate would have put us on a path to somewhere hopeful. A lot of smart people were dubious about that, but still latched on–rationalizing that any path is better than the ditch we’ve been in for two decades. And now with one of the major U.S. political parties embracing a rejectionist stance on climate science, I can appreciate the pent up frustration of folks who correctly see no desire by either political party to talk about climate change, much less help chart a new path to a decarbonized world. But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels.

Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)? A large enough bloc of committed, passionate voters that makes its voice heard in Washington. A couple of hundred people chanting outside the White House gates isn’t going to do it. It has to be a sustained, organized movement. Something nourished at the grassroots that spreads and multiplies throughout congressional districts. Can Bill McKibben pull that off? Al Gore should give him his Nobel if he does.

Because there are no shortcuts. Greens and climate activists shouldn’t count on sporadic heat waves and wildfires to do the work for them. This is crucial because extreme weather and disasters has become crack cocaine to the climate community. Many of them are now hooked. And they come crashing down once the heat breaks and global warming disappears from the headlines. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Paul Krugman in his last column:

When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.

That’s a problem for a climate movement that looks good on the web but is a paper tiger in the real world.  So what’s the game plan, other than beating up on the media and evil deniers? Paradoxically, more fossil fuels (in the short term), as Michael Tobis suggests here (my emphasis):

Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy.

Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.

Many people already understand what is going on, of course, but never mind that. Once they have a steady job again and can make the monthly mortgage payment, their lizard brains will be receptive to a “cultural shift.”

  • Joshua

    Keith -

    Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community.

    Sorry – but I just don’t think that such a one-sided statement can get us much further to understanding. Surely, if you have read anything in the blogosphere, or heard any Republican politician speaking about climate change, you have read/heard them scapegoating the media.IMO, it is important to always, as much as possible, recognize the bilateral nature of the problems. Again, that isn’t to diminish the validity of questioning Romm, but I fear that you may have wandered too far inside the bubble. Romm’ media-blaming seems like a big deal from inside the bubble, but from outside the bubble, he’s insignificant next to the constant hand-wringing about the “media-created climate hoax” on rightwing talk radio. Deeper understanding and international trust will not result merely from more prosperity; it will also require seeing the underlying components of this debate that don’t align with the partisan divisions.

  • Keith Kloor

    Joshua,

    I’ve previously written in numerous posts about the hoax echo chamber you speak of. Sorry, but as I said to you already, I’m not always going to hit all the preferred bases of readers–in every post.

    Also, you seem to be cherry-picking. In sum, my post is about much more than the media being a scapegoat of climate activists.

  • Joshua

    I think the rest of the post is good, Keith. I agree that blaming the media is mistaken and non-productive. I agree that hyping extreme weather will most likely not be very convincing (because I doubt that in our lifetime extreme weather will be so unambiguous in impact as to sway public opinion.enough to support political action.) I’m questioning the part that I thought was weak.

    I’m not always going to hit all the preferred bases of readers”“in every post.

    Since you’ve kind of said this to me twice, I should make it clear that I have absolutely no expectation that you should hit all of my preferred bases. Such an expectation would be absurd. But I don’t see why that should mean that I shouldn’t offer criticism.

  • jeffn

    Here’s ABC News’ fairly typical take on global warming: On a bad day ABC News sees 7.5 million viewers- more than twice Fox News most highly rated prime-time show and twice the number that listens to Rush Limbaugh.
    Here’s ABC
    “…there is no debate among the world’s climate scientists that human emissions are causing the increasing global heat, nor that these emissions are the direct overall cause of the rapidly increasing frequency of heatwaves, drought and flood “¦ and thus of the crippled agriculture and suffering those things are already bringing more frequently in various parts of the world “” this year, notably, in the United States.)

    Actually, this is old news.”

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2012/07/whos-most-to-blame-for-global-warming/

    So, with the major newspapers, networks and two out of three cable news stations parroting the concerned line- even exaggerating it a bit with a “no debate” qualifier – what’s Joe Romm’s excuse again?
    And please, let’s not forget that Joe Romm is not a climate blogger, he works for a partisan group that makes no secret of its mission to promote Progressive solutions to any issue. If the answer to global warming isn’t big government and voting for Democrats, Joe Romm isn’t interested in global warming.

  • Pascvaks

    To expect more than heaven allows is nearly as maddening as constantly being surprised by the unexpected.  Some people move at the speed of dry, hard mud; some people move at the speed of an upset stomach; most people move very slowly indeed!  Some think time moves too fast; some think time moves too slow; most don’t have the time to watch and see how fast or slow it’s moving, so they rarely think about it.  Life, and time, and tide, move on regardless of who’s watching, and at their own pace.  Repeat after me: “The earth is NOT the center of the Universe, I am!” (Life’s a Beach;-)

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    If I can do a bit of cherry picking of my own, I’d like to focus on the grass roots approach you recommend.

    First, it’s already happening. The take-up of residential solar and hybrid electric vehicles is evidence that people in large numbers are willing to spend more of their hard-earned money to adopt greener lifestyles. This is not just one or two people. Worldwide, it’s millions. In the U.S., it’s hundreds of thousands.

    Second, this grass roots movement is being resisted by consensus operators who want  policy be the principal lever to address climate change, buttressed by officially approved faux-organizers like McKibben.

    I would offer as evidence of the second point the reaction Paul Kelly gets when he tries to drum up interest in his very real, very grass roots efforts to turn the world green one house at a time.The consensus holders jump all over him.The two great fallacies undermining this debate at the moment are:

    1. Republicans/conservatives/skeptics refuse to believe that factors other than price can be considered in energy issues. Green energy is more expensive than fossil fuels. A large number of people are willing to pay the extra costs. Even more are willing to support policies that advantage green solutions, even if it increases their taxes.

    2. Democrats/liberals/consensus holders refuse to believe that green actions send anything more than a pricing signal to the market. They ignore that each hybrid car or residential solar installation also validates the concept to politicians and manufacturers trying to figure out which way the cat is going to jump over the next few years.

    With both sides of the debate stubbornly ignoring reality, it is no wonder that the conversation often seems sterile.

  • Pascvaks

    PS: All I was trying to say was that most people are too busy to worry about saving the world, in fact, they don’t even have time to think about it.

  • Keith Kloor

    Tom (6)

    These are excellent points.  I guess I’m thinking of a grassroots movement that has voting muscle. But the indirect messages the green consumer sends is equally valid, just in a different way, I suppose.

    Joshua (3)

    I value your participation and input. Of those that routinely criticize me here, your tone stands out for being civil and respectful. I’ll always engage with someone that takes that approach.

    I think that you should perhaps understand that often my posts are directed at particular audiences. Sometimes I’m writing with climate skeptics in mind, sometimes journalists, sometimes climate activists, etc, etc.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    To step out on a limb in continuing my thought, I’d characterize the failure of the consensus to highlight mass adoption of green solutions as one of the more spectacular failures of a media drive that is littered with spectacular failures.

    I mean, no pressure, but this is the second major positive message that has gone ignored (the first being the huge U.S. success in lowering CO2 emissions). But hey, no pressure. Some messages are more fun to create than others, right?

  • MarkB

    When you quote Joe Romm – for any reason – you’re part of the problem.When you look to Bill McKibben for leadership, you’re part of the problem. Regarding the current obsession with ‘communication.’ Does it ever occur to you that maybe your communication is perfectly clear – we just don’t buy it? It has nothing to do with psychology, or evolution, or the economy. Maybe, just maybe, you could accept that we’re ‘just not into you.’ And no, the problem is not Republican politicians. This is a democracy – those politicians represent people, and are doing the people’s will. And by the way – ‘Democrat West Virginia’ is going to go big for Romney, because of Obama’s stand on coal. And that won’t be because of Rush Limbaugh. Once more, formerly loyal Democrats are seeing their party walk away from them.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    As a loyal Democrat, MarkB, I can only say that your characterization is far from universal. I completely support Obama’s stand on coal and will be enthusiastically voting for him in November. 

  • Keith Kloor

    MarkB (10)

    You seem to be reading a bit too much into my posts. I’m not trying to sell you anything. Also, I quote lots of people–for various reasons–even people I often disagree with. 

  • jeffn

    hiya Tom! Do you support Obama’s stand on nuclear power and natural gas? If so, can you tell me what it is?
    Not trying to be partisan, the guy could legitimately take credit for the gas revolution and the first new permit for a nuke in 30 years. If he wanted to but…. he doesn’t want to.
    That’s the sad part of the Democratic Party’s shift to the left- he must pander to a base that would rather take credit for Solyndra.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Hiya Jeffn! I think Obama wants more nukes and natural gas, and so do I. How that translates into specific policy proposals from his administration is, as you intimate, tough to decipher.I am one who is not hugely bothered by that (although I would like to see stronger action, certainly). I think Obama is fiercely constrained by the state of the economy, the vehemence of the opposition and the recalcitrance of his own party. I’m amazed he’s gotten as much of his agenda passed as he has. One of the reasons I’m voting for him…

  • stan

    This all reads like warmed over Thomas Frank and “What’s the Matter with Kansas”.  Or Obama’s ‘bitter clingers’ excuse for why the vast majority of middle class whites oppose him.There is the possibility that someone who disagrees with one of the standard left-wing talking points (in this case global warming) is neither an evil genius manipulating sheep nor one of the stupid sheep.  The constant mantra about the stupid public ought to give some people pause to consider if perhaps the locus of the ‘stupid’ might be found somewhere else. 

  • http://www.climatecentral.org Mike Lemonick

    Speaking of Joe Romm, I believe he’s let the publication of Climate Central’s new book Global Weirdness go by without even a whisper of acknowledgement. Possibly because it fails to scream at the reader that we’re all doomed and that anyone who’s not with the program is evil scum.

  • http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com Andy Revkin

    Tobis is channeling former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. See this Dot Earth excerpt: Last November, former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, long focused on global warming, sent an e-mail message to a batch of people involved with energy and climate change, myself included, that included two recent articles on these same trends [fossil abundance] and a poignant reflection from the standpoint of climate policy. These are the articles, both published last November:- “America is entering a new age of plenty,” by Edward Luce in the Financial Times.- “Saudi sees threat of shale oil revolution,” a Reuters article by Reem Shamseddine.Here’s Wirth’s reflection:

    First impressions suggest that this new abundance of fossil fuels will be disastrous for the globe’s climate ““ but maybe that is too fast a judgment. Instead, maybe this new abundance provides a window of time to better understand and explain the challenges of climate, and the options needed. In any case, this new abundance seems to be a reality, requiring new strategies for those of us who continue the urgent concern for the globe’s climate.

  • Keith Kloor

    Stan (15)

    I don’t think you have to worry. I don’t believe you are the target audience of those nefarious climate communicators. You’re definitely on to them! :)

    Seriously, I think you misunderstand a key point: the contention isn’t that the public is stupid (that was a misleading headline for the NYT piece, though it worked as an attention getter). It’s that the nature of the climate threat (as processed by our evolutionary brains) isn’t grasped as a visceral threat. Now I realize that this wouldn’t be the case anyway for climate skeptics such as yourself. But here we’re mostly talking about people who already accept climate change or probably don’t have a firm opinion of it yet.

  • Jarmo

    We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy. 

    As means to recover prosperity, is MT referring to the same evil consumer-driven capitalist system that the greens say is destroying the planet?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/25/rio-governments-will-not-save-planet

  • Joshua

    Or Obama’s “˜bitter clingers’ excuse for why the vast majority of middle class whites oppose him.

    What comprises a “vast majority?”Obama won 43% of the white vote. He won 55% of the votes from those earning $30k-$50k, 48% of those earning $100k-$150k.

    The constant mantra about the stupid public ought to give some people
    pause to consider if perhaps the locus of the “˜stupid’ might be found
    somewhere else.

    I read a lot of conservatives who talk about the foolish and uneducated American public who are duped by libruls and “the librul mainstream media” (say such as on the issue of global warming). It seems to me that blaming undesired political outcomes on the stupidity of the public is bipartisan.

  • Joshua

    At the risk of displaying poor blog form, I will again link to an article (that I improperly linked in the previous thread) that provides some evidence to support the thesis that public support for environmental issues (and policies directed at preventing climate change in particular) may well be influenced by the state of the economy.

    http://www.environmentaltrends.org/single/article/public-opinion-about-the-environment-notable-shifts-in-recent-years.html

  • jeffn

    Tom at #14. I think leaders should lead, which is why I can’t vote for a Rorschach test candidate.
    The economy will constrain action on global warming whether it’s good or bad- Rio the First was in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997, which some may note was prior to the most recent economic collapse and during “the prosperity of the ’90s.”
    Andy Revkin, sorry but Sen. Wirth is not the progenitor of the idea to drill domestically as a means to increase prosperity, energy independence, and even to develop a bridge fuel to other alternatives to coal. Someone else was pushing that a few years ago. Guess who. It was all over the news, mostly people making fun of her for saying it.

  • Tom Scharf

    Another crazy interpretation:

    AGW is simply losing the argument on its merits.

    The climate concerned community’s brains are not wired to accept this argument due to < fill in blank with sciency psycho-babble truthiness >.Still waiting for one of the government’s highly skilled non-partisan university trained social scientists to even contemplate this answer. 

  • Dean

    While as Tom points out, various things are bubbling up here and there, this only seems significant if you underestimate sensitivity the way he does. Those of us who think that a WWII-scale effort is needed (and this requires that some new technology gets developed that we need) do require the kind of sea-change in public priorities that does not at all seem around the corner. What will change this dynamic? Most likely a continuous string of the “right” kind extreme weather events — continuous over a few years at least. The right kind means heat waves and droughts and not snowmagedon winters. Whether such a string of events resolves or undermines scientific certainty is another question. In the end, it is the politics that determine policy, and it is the public’s perception that determines politics. (PS – I would agree that the media’s portion of fault in all this is less than some like Romm claim)

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    J School, were we train all the public relations spokesfolk.  That should give you an idea about why it is easy to blame journalists.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    So the consensus response appears to veer from calling the audience stupid, the journalists lazy, the opposition evil and the weather climate–unless it’s cold. 

    Never a thing about the message. Never a thing about its authors.

    Fancy that.

    It kind of amazes me that so many can understand that something is going wrong (‘We’re losing!’) but remain so clueless about what they’ve done wrong, what they need to do to change, and how to go about it.

    If this wasn’t serious, it’d be hilarious.

  • Tom Scharf

    A great many people who as so deep in the great climate debate cannot see the forest for the trees.  They underestimate the public’s intuitive trust in their own BS meters, and overestimate the public’s trust of consensus science, specifically in predictions of future events in fields such as economics, weather, and the climate.

    At it’s very core, the climate scare sets off numerous red flags in everyone’s BS meters:

    A claim is made that great misfortune is going to occur and affect everyoneIt cannot be felt or sensed by the general publicAction must be taken now before you can actually see it or feel it happenA specific political / activist group’s long standing policy preferences must be implemented in a crash action to avoid great misfortuneAfter the favored policies have been implemented at great cost, there will be no observable changes in the environment from the initial conditions in #1.

    Regardless of its merits, this type of argument is correctly fraught with suspicion.   It sounds on the surface like a cult tactic.  People are simply naturally wary of this, and yet AGW supporters completely dismiss it as irrelevant.  

    You need the interlocking pieces of trust, credibility, and transparency to pull this off.  

  • Tom Scharf

    Try again, experimental formatting FAIL

    A great many people who as so deep in the great climate debate cannot see the forest for the trees.  They underestimate the public’s intuitive trust in their own BS meters, and overestimate the public’s trust of consensus science, specifically in predictions of future events in fields such as economics, weather, and the climate.

    At it’s very core, the climate scare sets off numerous red flags in everyone’s BS meters:

    1. A claim is made that great misfortune is going to occur and affect everyone

    2. It cannot be felt or sensed by the general public

    3. Action must be taken now before you can actually see it or feel it happen

    4. A specific political / activist group’s long standing policy preferences must be implemented in a crash action to avoid great misfortune

    5. After the favored policies have been implemented at great cost, there will be no observable changes in the environment from the initial conditions in #1.

    Regardless of its merits, this type of argument is correctly fraught with suspicion.   It sounds on the surface like a cult tactic.  People are simply naturally wary of this, and yet AGW supporters completely dismiss it as irrelevant.  

    You need the interlocking pieces of trust, credibility, and transparency to pull this off.  

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    gt; I agree that blaming the media is mistaken and non-productive.

    Could that be because blaming is oftentimes misguided and non-productive, by any chance?

    I hope I’m wrong, for if I’m right, the whole kingdom of climate blogland would be in dire need of some soul searching.

    I suggest we all search for our souls at Keith’s.

  • Joshua

    #29 – Willard.

    Could that be because blaming is oftentimes misguided and non-productive, by any chance?

    No doubt.

    The constant blaming is an extension of the (seemingly?) unvarying sense of victimhood.

    It always amazes me that both sides could continuously be victims. Shouldn’t it work that one side would be the victims and the other side the victimizers?

  • BBD

    Shouldn’t it work that one side would be the victims and the other side the victimizers?

    Life’s not so simple :-)

  • Joshua

    #28 – Tom

    There’s a logic to your thesis – except that you don’t have actual evidence in support. At best you have correlated evidence, but nothing to establish causality, and even much of the correlated evidence is pretty weak.

    I have often seen theses such as yours in the “skeptical” blogosphere, essentially that climate scientists overegging the pudding as come back to bite them in the a$$ – but what folks seem to miss is that if they’re offering a theory inside the climate blogosphere, by definition, they are exactly as you described – stuck in the forest (or I’d say inside the bubble).

    What evidence do you have that there is a significant change in view on climate change resulting from the causes you describe? Opinions on climate change have varied, to some degree, over time, but that seems mostly to correlate with weather patterns or the economy. Concern about climate change has not been on a steady downward trend, which is what would be consistent with your theory. And concern about other environmental issues have followed a similar parttern as concern over climate change. Perhaps there are other factors that are driving opinions on multiple issues?

    From what I’ve seen, folks in the “skeptical” blogosphere way overstate the degree to which trust in climate scientists or trust in scientists has trended downward. They point to polls that show that many people think that climate scientists manipulate data to support their theories, but fail to control for whether there are similar opinions about people in other professions, or whether that opinion has changed over time. Are opinions about the predictions about climate scientists any more negative than opinions about the theories of climate “skeptics?” In other words, “skeptics” are suspiciously ready to confirm their biases. Yes, I’ve seen the polls that climate “skeptics” like to point to, and I have never seen them make a compelling case that the polls show what they claim. On the other hand, I’ve also seen that polls about opinions about climate science (and climate scientists) show that strong majorities trust scientists (and organizations such as NOAA) as the most reliable source of information about climate change. Polls show that trust in scientists in general remains steady and high. Data show that opinions about climate science and climate scientists is very strongly correlated with social, political, and cultural identity.

    Has it occurred to you that maybe it is a bit too convenient for you to just happen to find changes in public opinion that coincide with  yours (i.e, that overstated claims by climate scientists has significantly reduced their reliability)? That doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, of course, but it does mean 

    Where are the data that you use to support your thesis?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Tom Scharf, look at it this way. Members of the general public are frequently required to choose to purchase products or services, or select candidates or causes, in areas where we are not expert.How do we do it? How do we select lawyers and legislators, doctors and dentists, etc.? More importantly, how do we do it so astonishingly well that our lifespan improves, wars decrease, famines decline? For we have gotten better at this over the centuries.References and recommendations are hugely important, with the appropriate analogue of endorsements. So is a public record of success.More lizard-brainy, so are physical and emotional attributes associated with fitness–height, symmetrical features, a sunny disposition.These criteria have been used to differing degrees for a very long time and, as I said, it’s worked astonishingly well.So when ascetic, dour, humorless folk elbow their way into the public view and hector us for our stupidity and bad behavior and tell us we are doomed and taking the planet down with us, forgive me for giggling when they ask why their message isn’t working.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Oops! formatting…Tom Scharf, look at it this way.

    Members of the general public are frequently required to choose to purchase products or services, or select candidates or causes, in areas where we are not expert.

    How do we do it? How do we select lawyers and legislators, doctors and dentists, etc.? 

    More importantly, how do we do it so astonishingly well that our lifespan improves, wars decrease, famines decline? For we have gotten better at this over the centuries.

    References and recommendations are hugely important, with the appropriate analogue of endorsements. So is a public record of success.

    More lizard-brainy, so are physical and emotional attributes associated with fitness”“height, symmetrical features, a sunny disposition.These criteria have been used to differing degrees for a very long time and, as I said, it’s worked astonishingly well.

    So when ascetic, dour, humorless folk elbow their way into the public view and hector us for our stupidity and bad behavior and tell us we are doomed and taking the planet down with us, forgive me for giggling when they ask why their message isn’t working. 

  • Tom Scharf

    Joshua,

    There are many lines of evidence pointing to the failure of the public to “get it” with respect to the climate message.  Look no further than Rio, cap and trade, climate consistently being ranked dead last in public concern, politicians (including Obama) avoiding it like a toxic plague, etc.  If you don’t think the climate message is failing, you are in a distinct minority. Romm isn’t assigning blame to everyone but himself because the message is succeeding.  I don’t need to look around for you, you know the data as well as anyone.  You can point out all the major recent climate message success stories if you like.

    Expert prediction just happens to be very poor in certain areas of science.  The very best stock traders cannot predict the stock market with any consistency.  “Dumb” index funds outperform “smart” managed funds.  Almost all economists failed to predict the 2008 housing market collapse, even when it seems rather obvious in hindsight.  Weather has only a 10 day outlook no matter how many supercomputers you throw at it.  Irreducible complexity is a serious technical limitation and climate modeling has it in spades.  There are many other examples.

    Just because the best and brightest of mankind has been working diligently on a problem for decades, does not mean they are competent at it.  You have to prove it, being smart is not enough.  Accurate predictions of climate outcomes is likely beyond human capability now given their results so far.  

    A physics major predicting when a dropped ball will hit the floor  is in an entirely different league than  climate science predicting global temperature 100 years from now.

    Why do we trust some scientists more than others?  Mostly it is a track record of success that fosters trust.  Publicly demonstrated validation of theories by measurement, observation, and results.  Not because they all got together and self declared themselves trustworthy by consensus.

  • Joshua

    Tom –

     If you don’t think the climate message is failing, you are in a distinct minority.

    This is not relevant to my point. Concern about climate change among the public has dropped. I wasn’t arguing that. I was arguing about your casue-and-effect attribution for the reason, and asking you for evidence to support your conjecture (stated with absolute certainty).

    Just because the best and brightest of mankind has been working diligently on a problem for decades, does not mean they are competent at it.

    Sorry – but this comment suggests that you are projecting opinions onto me that I don’t hold and this, and the rest of your post, is also not relevant to my point. I will say, however: Despite the track record of managed funds, people still invest in them. People still look to the weather forecast despite the limitations in forecasting ability. People still trust scientists as the best source of information about climate change.

    Publicly demonstrated validation of theories by measurement, observation, and results.  Not because they all got together and self declared themselves trustworthy by consensus.

    If you have data that show that the public views climate scientists in a way that is distinctly different than how they view other scientists, or “skeptics,” (or people from other professions, like lawyers, or priests, or financial advisors, or politicians, or executives, or plumbers), I would love to see them. Further, if you have data that support your theories about cause-and-effect in public opinion about climate scientists, I’d love to see that also. I have seen conjecture similar to yours many, many times. What I have yet to see are data supporting such conjecture. I find that rather ironic when it comes from people who are extremely focused on the validation of attribution of theories. The best data I’ve seen show that opinion on the issue of climate change correlates very strongly with social, political, and cultural identity – and while  solid evidence explaining causation is not there, those data do weaken the plausibility of your theories as to cause-and-effect.

  • Joshua

    One more thing, Tom. You seem to be largely referring to the public as “we” and public opinion as “our” opinion. I see this a lot from some “skeptics.” Surely you must realize that as climate change fanatic, your are by definition an outlier. Just because you view climate scientists in a certain way, just not prove that the public shares your perspective. General public opinion might be entirely congruent with yours, or it may not be. The only way to tell is with some kind of evidence.

    Simply describing the ebbs and flows of public opinion on climate change does not fill in the needed detail. If you want to use “we” to refer to the thinking of “skeptics,” then that might make more sense, but it needs to be distinguished from public opinion, and you will need to steel yourself against the onslaught from people like NiV who will explain to you over and over that “skeptics” are not monolithic in their beliefs.

  • Michael Larkin

    Input your comments here…But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels.

    What makes you think the economy will recover on a timescale shorter than the one necessary to prove something that might be true: that climate alarmism is a bunch of hooey?

  • Orson

    Sorry Tom, about your Democrat voting enthusiasm. Because I became an enthusiastic ANTI-Democrat voting Republican by the late 1990s, when anti-authoritarianism and candidates that support it in the party got chased out by fascist tendencies and the PC thought police. Kloor has no one to blame for the above abuses than that kind of “thinking.” In short, too thoughtless to support skeptics, nonconformists, and the anarchistic.

  • charles

    Mark Morano has linked to you. He seems to like your ‘crack cocaine’ remark.Excellent comments from the two Toms on this thread. 

  • harrywr2

    Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)?

    A solution that doesn’t create more problems then it solves or is at least is seen to create less problems then it solves.

    It’s easy to cure cancer if one isn’t concerned whether or not the patient lives or dies. To listen to some of the more rabid climate change alarmists there appears to be little or no concern about the quality of life in a post fossil world.

  • harrywr2

    But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully
    recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration
    levels.

    How much are you willing to bet? I’ll bet that the only thing any administration, Democrat or Republican attempts to sell the American public in my lifetime is ‘clean, affordable energy’.

    Even the word ‘clean’ is difficult to sell…the ‘Clean Energy Act of 2007′ was renamed the ‘Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007′ prior to final passage.

    IMHO The problem the ‘climate concerned’ have in getting effective legislation passed is their childish insistence that ‘action on climate change’ actually be called ‘action on climate change’. 

  • http://www.aei.org/scholar/kenneth-p-green Ken Green

    Keith: At this point, I suspect Romm is so starved for attention for himself and his agenda that he’d resort to tripping strangers in the street just for the chance to rant at them when they’re down.

  • Tom C

    Charles – I agree, excellent comments from the two Toms.

  • James Evans

    “‘You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,’ says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.” …………..Sometimes the underlying psychology has it right. Maybe there’s a reason why we’ve made it this far. Maybe we have pretty damn good underlying psychology.

  • Joshua

    Keith –

    Probably bad form to clutter the thread with this, and I don’t tweet, or even understand the whole process – but looking at the tweet about conflict of interest in academic research in fracking,  I wondered if you’d heard this:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer/

  • steven mosher

    “orry ““ but I just don’t think that such a one-sided statement can get us much further to understanding. Surely, if you have read anything in the blogosphere, or heard any Republican politician speaking about climate change, you have read/heard them scapegoating the media.

    mommy mommy. they did it first

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    Tom Fuller #26,”If this wasn’t serious, it’d be hilarious.”I for one find it all quite humorous, even if not hilarious.  I guess it has to do with one’s perception of the probabilities of serious of consequences from GW, things which can’t be dealt with through technological fixes, versus the consequences of politically forced reduction in fossil fuel use. (Is the cure worse than the disease?)  I do agree with you about the serious need for much greater energy production in the coming decades to help lift poor people out of poverty.  The best way to get there from here merits serious discussion; if it can be done economically while reducing CO2 emissions, that would be a no regrets policy which might gather a broad political consensus.

  • Joshua

    #47 – steven

    I was hoping that you might not notice that.

    Although you have misapplied the concept in the past, I think this time the charge is legit.

    Notice that I explicitly acknowledge that the problem is bilateral and that criticism of Romm should not be diminished. My downfall was in my attempt to morally equivocate (by my reference to severity – as if less media-blaming is better than more media-blaming).

    So then, the question is how can I critique a description such as Keith’s (for what I felt was a lack of comprehensiveness) without without
    stooping to Mommymommyism?

  • John F. Pittman

    Joshua, welcome to the post normal social science era, the PNSS Era for short. Tom S is just applying the Precautionary Principle of  Proof which states until it is proven otherwise, one can use one’s bias of political worry instead of actual data. What the IPCC and the UN do for climate change and other environmental assumed risks, but applied to politics and social self examination. What they have in common is that once you make assumptions, you can deny or support all sorts of things without providing anything other than ancedotal, assumed , or conjectured. Adding real data and studies requires a concensus, exotic trips to exotic lands, UN approval, and agreement by parties can supercede science as in Rule 10.

  • Sashka

    This is probably the first case when I would agree with Romm on anything. There is indeed almost no place for rational public discourse. Not even in the blogosphere. People who have most to say (the active scientists) aren’t generally interested in engaging with general public. Those who are usually have an agenda that they prefer to push in the safety of their own shells. The open/neutral places tend to get occupied by trolls, wackos and such.

    On a different note, I suspect that waiting for the return of the Goldilocks economy of Clinton era is more like a pipe dream.

  • MarkB

    Keith (12) You don’t have to quote Romm approvingly to get dragged down by him. Romm is not a journalist, or a scientist, or even simply a concerned citizen. Romm is a paid shill. The only time I ever hear his opinion is when you or Pielke Jr complain about his extremism. Maybe that’s a sign? By quoting him and responding to him, you just give him legitimacy. There is no shortage of legitimate voices in the hair-on-fire camp. Romm is a paid puppet.

  • Keith Kloor

    MarkB (52)

    Romm hardly needs me to give him legitimacy. He’s often cited in the mainstream media and by some of the most influential thought leaders (For example: He’s Friedman’s and Krugman’s go-to source on all things related to climate change.)

    And for as much as I might disagree with Romm’s tactics, I don’t think of him as a “paid shrill.” I think his concern is sincere. But he brings a zero sum mentality to the climate debate, which has led him to wage a dishonest smear campaign against equally sincere people that happen to disagree with him on how to address climate change.

    But what really bothers me about his behavior is that, instead of calling him on this, prominent figures in the climate debate look the other way, for political reasons. They thus enable his worst traits.

  • Joshua

    “Tom S is just applying the Precautionary Principle of  Proof which
    states until it is proven otherwise, one can use one’s bias of political
    worry instead of actual data. What the IPCC and the UN do for climate
    change and other environmental assumed risks, but applied to politics
    and social self examination.”

    What do you think, steven? “Mommy, mommy, they do it tooo?”

  • John F. Pittman

    Yes, Joshua. In this case I am agreeing with you that certain behaviors are human in nature. I thought you might understand that the precautionary principle and Rule 10, are not about science, but about setting up a preferred condition or a bias. You stated “Notice that I explicitly acknowledge that the problem is bilateral and that criticism of Romm should not be diminished. ” I assumed you held this true and in general, because the application of PP and Rule 10 is to enforce a kind of bias. And like Joe Romm the validity of a position, or not, does not necessarily negate the presence of a bias.

  • Tom C

    @ 53 Keith

    Follow your line of thinking through. What does it say about Friedman and Krugman that they rely on Romm?

  • BillC

    er, he told you<blockquote>But what really bothers me about his behavior is that, instead of calling him on this, prominent figures in the climate debate look the other way, for political reasons. They thus enable his worst traits</blockquote>

  • jeffn

    Keith,
    Joe Romm is listed as a staff member of Think Progress, the host of his blog and a site owned by the Center For American Progress Action Fund. Their own mission statement, found at the about us link on the bottom of all Romm’s posts is:
    “Through this blog, CAPAF seeks to provide a forum that advances progressive ideas and policies.”
    Realists should be concerned that the “go-to-guy” is a paid political operative. And if being on the staff of a political organization doesn’t make you a “shill,” what does?
    On another note, Romm is located at thinkprogress.org
    Type in thinkprogress.com

  • steven mosher

    Joshua, your problem is that you are unprincipled. That’s ok, we all are in one way or another. They only path I’ve found that works is to make simple clear requirements and try to hold everyone to them, myself included. Share your data, share your code.
    WRT Keith you always have a choice. yes you get to nit pick. that’s your right. We get to notice that you don’t work for understanding or common ground, you nit pick. It’s hard to avoid. like I get to nit pick you. and so it goes.

  • steven mosher

    speaking of climate communicators.. here is some mail ( post climategate)
    From: Michael Mann
    To: Ben Santer
    Cc: Abraham, John P.; Dessler; xxxx@sunysuffolk.edu Mandia;
    Weymann; xxxx@columbia.edu Schmidt; xxx@ucar.edu Trenberth; carl mears; Frank Wentz;
    xxx@unsw.edu.au Sherwood; Karl Taylor; Tom Wigley; Naomi Oreskes
    Subject: Re: Serious accusations made by Roy Spencer against Andrew Dessler
    Date: Friday, December 10, 2010 12:41:57 PM
    Ben et al,
    I’ve taken the liberty of copying Naomi in on this message. Her book w/ Eric Conway (“Merchants of
    Doubt”) i required reading for any of us. It provides the further historical context essential to understand
    this latest incident. This incident hardly represents the rogue behavior of a single contrarian scientist.
    Rather, Spencer lending his scientific credibility (well-what, if any, is left of it) to a coordinated, longterm,
    industry-funded smear and disinformation campaign. Spencer couldn’t have pulled this off on his own.
    Rather, he had the full resources of the fossil fuel front group known as “CFACT”
    (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Committee_for_a_Constructive_Tomorrow) behind him. They are
    the ones who organized the press conference, rolled out their fake “Lord” Monckton for further theater,
    etc. we ignore this larger context at our peril.
    Mike

    ###########

    Question: which is worse making these kinds of accusations in private where they cannot be answered or in public? And what does this poisening of the well do to peer review? dunno

    .

  • steven mosher

    The right wing and deniers are very good at repeating over and over again attacks on our best
    spokespeople and scientists in order to delegitimize them.
    The fact is Spencer should have been delegitimize on the basis of 1) his being obstinately dead wrong
    about the satellite data, 2) his creationism, and 3) his generally bizarre views: I predict that the
    proposed cure for global warming . reducing greenhouse gas emissions . will someday seem as outdated
    as using leeches to cure human illnesses. h
    http://climateprogress.org/2010/04/20/the-great-global-warmingblunder-roy-spencer-marc-morano-cureglobal-
    warming-reducinggreenhouse-gas-emissions-leeches/

    Folks need to repeat these over and over again. That’s what I did in my post — but the Spencer stuff was
    buried at the end of a long post.
    Now, on the specific inanity of clouds causing El Nino — you need to round up a bunch of the country’s
    leading experts on climate modeling and/or El Nino to just mock him for that.
    This is a busy day for me, but I really can’t emphasize this enough. Get a half dozen quotes from leading
    experts in the field, post them, and repeat them over and over again.
    I don’t know what it takes to discredit a pathological crank-case like Spencer, but the alternative is that he
    keeps doing this over and over again.
    From: Michael Mann [mailto:xxxx.psu.edu

  • steven mosher

    ho hum.. some more excerpts.. post climategate.

    Subject: Re: Serious accusations made by Roy Spencer against Andrew Dessler
    well put Scott, Specer’s actions are an affront to the scientific profession. reminds me of Pons and
    Fleischman holding a press conference back in the 1980s to announce they had achieved cold fusion.
    only this is worse, because Spencer doesn’t even have any results of his to announce, he’s simply
    slandering others.
    this needs to be called out, publicy and loudly. we ought to be able to get some journalists interested in
    this.
    Scott/John–you guys ought to have quite a rolodex of names now–I suggest we use it, perhaps we need
    to use the CCRRN in an even more pro-active mode for situations like this?
    mike

    Michael E. Mann

  • Joshua

    #55 – John Pittman –

    I couldn’t quite follow your #55 post. Remember, you have to take it easy with me. I’m slow on the uptake and I don’t have very good reading comprehension. Please explain your point in more basic language  if you can.In the meantime, by way of explanation I’ll offer this: I thought I remembered your name, from a few past exchanges, as one of the reasonable “skeptics” I encountered over at No Consensus (in my experience, a rarity). As such, when I first read your post #50 I thought “Hey, a reasonable “skeptic” willing to acknowledge a lack of evidence for an oft’ read “skeptical” argument about public opinion and climate science.” But then I later thought that maybe the real point of your post was to talk about the IPCC, and to suggest that Tom C is less accountable because he’s only applying a practice that the IPCC had used previously (the expression “just applying,” to me, could well have a connotation of minimizing).  Hence the question I asked in #54.

  • Tom C

    Joshua – You mean Tom S. 

  • BBD

    Steven mosher @ 61

    If I’ve got this right:

    [Mann:] The fact is Spencer should have been delegitimize on the basis of 1) his being obstinately dead wrong about the satellite data, 2) his creationism, and 3) his generally bizarre views:

    “I predict that the proposed cure for global warming . reducing greenhouse gas emissions . will someday seem as outdated as using leeches to cure human illnesses”

    Without endorsing Mann’s three-point dismissal of Spencer, but in case anyone is interested in the reasons why Mann appears to be irritated, further information is available here

  • Joshua

    Tom C – Sorry about that. Too many Toms in these here parts. Maybe a couple of you could take different names?

  • John F. Pittman

    If you mean reasonable as in I know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that models or proxies may be useful, then yes. If you think the IPCC does not have bias, or modellers, or paleo’s then I would be unreasonable because I agree with you about human nature. The Rio Precautionary Principle and the IPCC have institutionalized bias. This does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. It does mean that to understand my position better would require that you comprehend this. You can determine this bias by reading Rule 10 for the IPCC and reading the precautionary principle after learning a bit about risk management if you want to understand the details. If not, read the PP and rule 10 and just apply the same thought as you do to skeptics. You should dfo well. Paleo’s have their bias as well. Sometimes this has to do with difficulties, and what has been done to simplify and should be justifiable, but there are also elements of certain assumptions that are not justifiable if one makes certainty claims, and some are not justifiable at all i.e. known to violate principles of the methodology.  Yet just another aspect of human interaction.

  • Joshua

    John –

    I mean reasonable as in able to discuss issues without making facile arguments, attributing to me beliefs I don’t have, insulting, demeaning, etc.

    So then the next logical question is why would you think that I might believe that the IPCC is without biases if I argue that no one is immune to motivated reasoning (although I will have to say that as a collective entity, assigning a monolithic bias becomes more difficult without dubious conspiratorial thinking. Difficult but not impossible if you can identify clear bias in the grouping process itself, which may be true with the IPCC to some degree – self-selection bias in participants, bias in who gets to be peer-reviewed authors, bias in which peer reviewed authors are selected for contribution, bias in how the reports are authored, etc. My impression that all of those biases exist to some extent with the IPCC, although not nearly to the degree that I often see argued by “skeptics” – because they exaggerate the biases because of, in turn, their own motivated reasoning predicated on strong political ideology).As for paleos, 

    …but there are also elements of certain assumptions that are not justifiable if one makes certainty claims,

    I have no doubt that is true as an abstraction and I don’t doubt that some claims of certainty are overstated – however, what I know for a fact is that I have seen “skeptics” often say that claims of certainty are made when they don’t exist, and that often “skeptic” claims of too much certainty are, in fact, predicated upon an improbable degree of self-certainty (ironically enough).

    and some are not justifiable at all i.e. known to violate principles of the methodology.

    This is also problematic. Being that I’m slow on the uptake as well as not conversant in esoteric aspects of statistics, I’m not able to evaluate conclusively whether principles of methodology are violated. And the problem is that I must make assumptions that claims about validity are affected by motivation biases on both sides. I will say that from my armchair, it seems that there are some times when “skeptics” have made valid claims in that regard that have been invalidly rejected or not dealt well with by climate scientists. That is not surprising to me. It should be expected. On the other hand, again, I have seen occasions where, from my armchair, the claims of “skeptics” w/r/t invalid methodology are either bogus or accurate but exaggerated in import when viewed in context.

    So, if you believe in motivated reasoning as do I, do you not  agree with what I wrote above? (Well, at least some part more than just the part about me being slow on the uptake?)

  • Tom C

    Joshua – What do you do for a living?

  • Tom C

    Bill C – Yes, Keith’s last sentence does sort of answer my question.  But if you read it again you will see it is oddly constructed, i.e. they are enabling Romm.  The more direct conclusion that is fully warranted is that Romm provides cover for Friedman and Krugman to dissemble.

  • Joshua

    Tom C -

    The more direct conclusion that is fully warranted is that Romm provides cover for Friedman and Krugman to dissemble.

    Just to flesh that out a bit. What motives are Friedman and Krguman using Romm to hide?

  • Joshua

    Tom C -Why do you ask? (The length of my posts?)

  • charles

    Tom C, he works for NCSE

  • John F. Pittman

    Yes, Joshua, I agree with almost all that you say. But I am also trying to get you to realize that the IPCC and the Rio Agreement institutionalize a bias. It is not some whacko conspiracy claim. The documentation is right out in the open. The proponents of Rio also did what they said they were going to do, as indicated in the pre-event press releases that lead up to the event. They are the ones who claimed as to what they were going to do, and published what was done…not a conspiracy in sight on anybody’s part that I see.  So that it is less abstract, what the Rio Agreement did was to formally preclude an otherwise acceptable risk management strategy. They precluded that if uncertainty is high one can wait. The reason it is a bias is that uncertainty cuts both ways. In risk, one can choose to preserve capital and address items more certain and less risky (adaptation), rather than trying to address something that is potentially very risky, but very uncertain (mitigation).  Further, before the science was in, the IPCC was charged with finding anthropogentic climate change. This is where your comment of self selction and other bias becomes most important. The work by the IPCC does not just include the scientific. It includes what is likely to happen. The institutional bias was that anthropogenic climate change was both a danger, and a moral issue. This precludes, and can be seen in the Bayesian priors that the consideration that we should encourage CO2 generation is not included. The next area that the institutional bias occurs is in the response to “what will happen.” In policy, mitigation is favoured over adaptation, since ACC is a danger and immoral, and one cannot preserve capital and wait, the bias carries through to the potential policies. Also, in these documents, you will find that the UN wanted to be the director of the mitigation efforts such that they had an ensured funding rather than the present system. They give reasons for this that may or may not be worthwhile. So while I do agree that certain skeptics are way out of bounds, I contend it is worse when one institutionalizes a bias and one is in the position to try to make it happen. I do not think that the skeptics are in this position, and the ones you point out cannot do much about the science, because they really don’t do science. Those that do however, there are a number of emails that show the bias that is arrayed against them. There are also contempary publications where adverse authors on the “Team” have been put in position to gate keep, something also different than what the general skeptic you refer to can do.

  • Tom C

    Joshua – re your work, you say that you see bogus claims of bad methodology on both sides (paraphrasing).  What is it that gives you confidence to judge what is bad methodology?

  • Joshua

    Tom C –

    I have no problem telling you my “official story” (of course I have to deny what “skeptics” have cleverly sniffed out in the past — that I am simultaneously in the employ of the IPCC, “the team,” George Soros,  the Obama administration – and now the NCSE – all for the purpose advancing the agenda of starving millions of poor people world wide through creating high energy prices and establishing a one world government), but I doubt it will clarify much for you. Here’s why:

    First, there is something of a difference between being able to judge methodology and being able to judge claims of bad methodology and, second, I never said that I could judge all claims of bad methodology and third, note the inclusion of “from my arm chair” — intended to connote a recognition of non-expert subjectivity.

    Further, would your opinion on my ability to judge claims of bad methodology (let along methodology in itself) really be contingent on my profession? Would it really sway your opinion one way or the other? If so, might that constitute an “appeal to authority” on your part?

    That said, I will tell you that part of my work (recently, I have quite a winding road of employment) is related to working with academics and scientists to communicate (and I would say as a consequence evaluate) the methodology of their research. 

  • Joshua

    John Pittman –

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think I have a response, but would want to give it more thought before trying to write one.

  • steven mosher

    BBD.

    Funny that noone gets the point of the mails. its not that mann is right or wrong about spencer.

  • BBD

    @78

    Really? I thought this was all about the science.

  • Joshua

    I’m thinking this could get a few heads to explode:

    For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed
    with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
    But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?

    With great power comes great responsibility. However, evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important
    eco-systems.

    A basic fact about the human condition is that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other. It is easier for us to kill
    than it is for us to save a life; easier to injure than to cure. Scientific developments have enhanced our capacity to benefit, but they have enhanced our ability to harm still further. As a result, our power to harm is overwhelming. We are capable of forever putting an end to all higher life on this planet. Our success in learning to manipulate the
    world around us has left us facing two major threats: climate change ““ along with the attendant problems caused by increasingly scarce natural resources ““ and war, using immensely powerful weapons. What is to be done to counter these threats?

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/91/Moral_Enhancement

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Boy, talk about rehashing the major moral arguments that accompanied the Industrial Revolution… Philosophy Now would benefit from even a cursory examination of Philosopy Then.

  • harrywr2

    #81 Joshua,

    along with the attendant problems caused by increasingly scarce natural resources ““ and war, using immensely powerful weapons

    Sorry…but wars have become smaller and less deadly since the introduction of ‘immensely powerful’ weapons. There are only three ways to end a war, accommodation, assimilation or annihilation. The history of warfare is weighted heavily towards wars where the ultimate goal was assimilation or accommodation. Even the barbaric practice of raping the woman of the conquered was a method of achieving assimilation.Immensely powerful weapons are useless except in wars of annihilation. Wars of annihilation are fundamentally stupid because the other side is given no choice but to ‘fight to the death’. Every professional military officer in the world knows this and has known it for centuries…I guess it hasn’t ‘trickled down’ to University Philosophy departments.

  • Joshua

    No need to apologize, Harry. I didn’t write the piece -And I have stated no position on their argument.

    That said, I think your comments are pretty much a non-sequitor. Their argument is based on a presumption that we have achieved a different potential for destruction and the impact of such a difference  – not on an assertion of greater levels of deadliness in wars that have been or are being fought. 

    There’s a fair amount in their thesis I don’t particularly agree with, but I do think that it is reasonable to speculate that awareness of (or at least a belief in) our greater destructive powers exerts an evolutionary influence on our moral calculus.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Christian Science Monitor, 2005:

    “After a 20th century that was perhaps mankind’s most violent, all indicators point to a 21st century that will be as bad or worse. Civil wars and new ideological conflicts will multiply. The effectiveness of international forces for peace will wane. And the security of mankind will be the victim caught in the middle. Right?Wrong, says a report based on a three-year study by a group of international researchers. Contrary to widespread public perception, they find that the world is witnessing fewer wars – and those wars that do occur are killing fewer people.

    The study, released Monday at the UN, also concludes that global conflict-prevention and postconflict peacebuilding efforts are becoming more numerous and more effective.

    “We knew the number of wars was coming down, because that has been around in academic circles for a while, but particularly surprising is how the decline in wars is reflected right across the board in all forms of political conflict and violence,” says Andrew Mack, head of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia. He directed the team that delivered the report.

    That means that not only are interstate wars down, but so are civil conflicts, as well as other forms of political violence like human-rights abuses.

    The report finds that the total number of conflicts declined by 40 percent since the cold war ended. The average number of deaths per conflict has also declined dramatically, from 37,000 in 1950 to 600 in 2002. The study found 25 civil conflicts last year – the lowest number since 1976.”

  • John F. Pittman

    Joshua:It is rhetorical, and along the lines of the sky dragons who claim that CO2 can’t be a greenhouse gas because a greenhouse stops convection. Examples Strees, pressure, evolutionary, etc. My favourite “it is easier to kill than save a life.” Hey Joshua, tell them to get a clue: this has always been true. My head is not exploding but my laughter certainly is!! Scientific developments have enhanced our capacity to benefit, but they have enhanced our ability to harm still further.  Thesis:  When was this not true? This was true when the Archimedes screw helped miners that resulted in deeper mines, as many deaths and potential heavy metal poisoning. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important eco-systems. Exacerbate?? What is the measurement? “Exploit”??? Use equals exploitation, happy to know that. Who gets to decide what is important or the difference of use versus exploitation? The authors of course, what a dummy I am. Damn Joshua and you think some skeptics are overboard.? But thanks for the laughs, and all the useful idiot rhetorical questions I get to ask. Joshua you state “There’s a fair amount in their thesis I don’t particularly agree with, but I do think that it is reasonable to speculate that awareness of (or at least a belief in) our greater destructive powers exerts an evolutionary influence on our moral calculus.” My postulate: Our expanding destructive capabilities has been since we harnessed fire and other forms of energy. Wait, the Odum brothers did that in the 1950’s and helped found the science of ecology. Oh well, I guess these authors are only 60 years behind the literature and about 60,000 years behind the times.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Fulleration:”So the consensus response appears to veer from calling the audience stupid, the journalists lazy, the opposition evil and the weather climate”“unless it’s cold. “Those are indeed all components of the problem, though not the only ones.  You and KK witter on and on that they aren’t the important ones.  Others vigorously disagree.   Nature doesn’t give a shit either way.  What an exciting time to be alive.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    I don’t know about Keith, Sullivan, but I don’t argue that they are not important. I argue they are imaginary. Glad you’re enjoying the really big shew…

  • Joshua

    John Pittman –

    Despite my caution, I suspect from your recent comment (#85) that you have interpreted my opinions to be other than what they are. I’m reluctant to respond lest you do that again, but what the hey.

    Although I’m usually very reluctant to identify long term changes in society over time (E.g., are people less civil than they used to be? Are youth today more “narcisisstic” than they used to be? Etc.), again, I think it is reasonable to speculate about what has or what might in the future influence moral calculus.

    For example, didn’t the Nazi regime influence people to revisit moral relativism, or our views about the moral inferiority of “primitive” cultures? Why do we, as a society, reject slavery when it was once a fundamental engine of our economy? Why, do we broadly reject overt discrimination on the basis of race when only some 60 years ago it was commonplace? Why do we now, as a society, consider treating children or women or homosexuals in certain ways as immoral when not long ago it was accepted as common practice? I think that perhaps our growth in our technological capacities might be relevant to all these questions.

    More to the point, have our perceptions (whether they are entirely rational our not)  about our own power or impact affected how we view morality?

    Do you not think that events like Bopal or mine disasters have influenced our moral reasoning related to environmental issues and industrial development? 

    And even closer to the point, isn’t it reasonable to speculate that over time, the realization that dumping refuse into a river can make it flammable could alter how we evaluate the morality of such behavior – whether it be because we are concerned about the environment as an independent entity or we are concerned about the implications of such behavior to humans? Don’t you think that the development of weapons of mass destruction have influenced our moral calculus?

    These are complicated issues. It’s hard to know how older and smaller societies with less technology viewed the relative magnitude of their impact on the world. As our technology has grown so have the horizons that bound our view of the universe – perhaps it is entirely proportional. But it seems entirely appropriate, to me, for philosophers to speculate about these issues.

    As for the specifics you raised in your post, I will comment on one in particular. 

    My favourite “it is easier to kill than save a life.” Hey Joshua, tell them to get a clue: this has always been true.

    When I read that passage, I had a similar response. And then I went back and read it again, and thought that actually, they never suggested that it wasn’t always true. My inclination towards skepticism caused me to read something into what they said that they hadn’t said. Perhaps the differing motivations behind our respective skepticism is an answer as to why I dismissed that criticism and you didn’t?

    Damn Joshua and you think some skeptics are overboard.?

    Sure. Don’t you?

  • nutso fasst

    I doubt that
    “if hostile aliens invaded the earth today…the world would instantly
    come together in common cause.” Historically, hostile aliens with superior technology
    have had a talent for encouraging internecine conflicts.

  • John F. Pittman

    In general I agree with Joshua, but then you have not commented to my point and question of institutionalized bias. On the article you posted, re-read my post, Strees (stress for those who are better typists) evolutionary, pressure. I think the conflating of these with killing is poor. Not only does making a river flame, but eons ago camp rules for not fouling drinking water were established. In other words, we may be better at it, but that is the magnitude,  not the phenomena.They have presented a morality play on known “evil” such as our ability to kill most life, and in their veiw, we are faced with increasingly scarce natural resources. Yet to date human expierence is that we adapt and as items become more scarce or more expensive we change.  In other words, they bring aspects of our evolutionary and sociopolitical capabilities and history, yet conveniently leave out that which would invalidate the conflation, and invalidate their presumed moral staging of themselves in moral ascendancy. Fianlly Joshua I told them to get a clue not you; I said they were the ones defining exploitation; I stated these authors are 60 and 60,000 years behind. Where did I interpret your opinions? And I stated truthfully it did not cause my head to explode, but instead my laughter. You asked: More to the point, have our perceptions (whether they are entirely rational our not) about our own power or impact affected how we view morality? My postulate is that power and morality in resposne are determinned by capability and opportunity. As persons or society have become more capable of projecting their empathy, more opportunities have become available to do so. Also, more to the point(s) you have made in the past. Distrust of a gay person no longer is a threat to a tribe, whereas in the not too distant past, such would have been the typical human response, and would have been true. Perhaps that it is no longer true that we stand shoulder to shoulder against an outside enemy is better for many reasons and has more explanatory power than relativism.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Fulleration:” I argue they are imaginary.”Ah, so you thinkg widespread science illiteracy plus journalistic shorthanding/sensationalism plus the propaganda efforts of ideological agents are sheerly imaginary factors in the outcome of this particular front on the culture wars.  I already knew you were verging on the delusional, old man. No need to remind me.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    No, Sully, I think you should have stayed in your blue skin and continued to fly pterocopters.

    Worrying about the impact of widespread science illiteracy (I think a literate person would have written illiteracy regarding science) presupposes a period of time on this planet when there was scientific literacy and all was well. There has never been such a period and all has never been well. And yet we progress and life goes on, despite your published worries and private hopes.

    By ideological agents I assume you are including Gore and Oreskes, Mann and Romm, McKibben and, on a smaller scale (in every sense of the word) yourself. 

    You had the money, the names, the institutional support and all the levers of power. You have consistently squandered these advantages due to equal parts arrogance and stupidity. You’re a bunch of congenital idiots who don’t need an opposition to demonstrate your idiocy.

    The world continues to warm and we continue to contribute CO2, assisting this trend. But as long as you fools are entrenched in what you think of as ‘power,’ little progress will be made in addressing the real problems this brings to us all.

    If you and your friends wish to help combat global climate change, shut up and get off the stage.

  • Joshua

    John –

    I’m finding that this discussion is starting to feel a bit stale. I will try to look at the documents as you suggest, and yes, your point about institutionalizing bias is a good one. Institutionalizing a process always runs the risk of creating or exacerbating biases. That said, I have also often seen some “skeptics” (and outside of the climate debate, libertarians as an ideological tenet) make far to much of that tendency  in the climate debate – although  I am not saying that you have done so in your comments.

  • John F. Pittman

    Sorry about the stale part, especially since we have just started exploring institutional bias. As far as the libertarians and similar go, I do not classify them as skeptics but as obstructionists, and not as scientists, but advocates. Now there is a lot of blending going on. Take me for example, I read science and read WG1 of AR4, but am an obstructionists as far as advocates are concerned because I am an energy professional and the policies advocated are poor and poorly concieved. They will not work as advertised. Thus I oppose policies based on their worth versus hype as I have evaluated them.

  • Joshua

    Just to be clear – it’s probably more a matter of my attention span than anything inherent in the discussion.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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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