Revkin on Biased Reasoning

By Chris Mooney | April 19, 2011 1:21 pm

Andy Revkin has done a post that combines together a discussion of my Mother Jones piece with, appropriately, an analysis of the recent claims and counterclaims over the greenhouse gas implications of fugitive methane emissions from unconventional gas drilling (e.g., fracking). It includes a Q & A between us:

REVKIN: I would love your sense of why climate, as a hot-button issue, is more salient than vaccines in the political arena. Presumably it’s because it’s a direct link to the wallet for anti-tax folks and vaccines are a much smaller base of concern (people with young kids)?

You didn’t mention genetically modified organisms or radiation, two other arenas where the communitarians [Kahan’s descriptor for what others might call liberals] have what seems to be a high “dread to risk ratio“….

Finally, this seems to clash with the enduring vision that inertia on climate (and related issues) derives from heavy spending by fossil fuelers and media muddle. My learning curve on cultural cognition has led me to mostly abandon my expectation that better information and communication could change the public debate.

Do you see any need for the environmental movement to abandon its longstanding claim that the public is inert on climate and energy because of the themes in “Merchants of Doubt” and, to an extent, “The Republican War on Science?”

ME: First, this approach does not suggest that my first book (Republican War on Science) was wrong — e.g., there really were all these attacks on science, as you know from having reported on them — but it does suggest that the book did not fully describe motivations and mechanisms, as my Mother Jones piece begins to do. But a lot of this political psychology research has been coming on strong since the book came out in 2005.

A similar comment would also apply to the issue of industry spending on think tanks that challenge climate science. On the one hand, it is very important for the political right to have this echo chamber out there — and the arguments generated by conservative think tanks would interact with the biased reasoning processes that are the subject of my piece in a kind of one-two combination.

The problem is thinking that “follow the money” can allow you to fully explain and understand climate change skepticism. It’s not simply about protecting profits — it seems more about advancing a libertarian ideology, or in Kahan’s schematic, individualistic and hierarchical values.

As for media muddle — I still believe that is a very big deal. We have plenty of evidence on how Fox News fuels rejection of climate science, and how this interacts with the processes of biased reasoning I talk about in the article. As with the conservative think tanks and the arguments they generate, it’s kind of a double whammy. The core problem, I believe, is the interaction between our penchant for biased reasoning on the one hand, the deeply polarized political climate (which pushes emotional buttons rather than encouraging calm deliberation), and the rich misinformation environment (there’s a ready-made argument in defense of anything and everything).

I do think the issue of nuclear radiation also fits this “motivated reasoning” analysis–especially after having focused on the issue on Point of Inquiry. If you’re committed to opposing nuclear power, you will drive up the estimates of death from Chernobyl. If you’re a fan of nuclear power, you’ll be inherently skeptical of really high Chernobyl death counts. And you’ll “reason” accordingly.

I also think greens have exaggerated the human health dangers of consuming genetically modified foods–and used this example in The Republican War on Science. Again: The left is not immune to this stuff. Who is worse? That’s a complex question, beyond the scope of this post.

Finally, I wasn’t really sure how to compare climate and vaccines, in terms of their political salience. It’s certainly true that the scale of the problems is vastly different. I do expect that anti-vax efforts will explode into political attention again very soon….


Comments (7)

  1. TTT

    I do expect that anti-vax efforts will explode into political attention again very soon….

    Don’t tease. What, you got an advance copy of a 2012 candidate’s book or something? Some report about geographically-linked preventable infant mortality about to drop?

  2. Chris Mooney

    No, sadly, I just think we are going to have more diseases coming back and deaths as a result.

    Leading, of course, to media coverage.

  3. kirk

    It seems that much of the politics of denial comes from folks that have books ‘with all the answers’ in them. Further, they got hold of these books (Holy Bible, Porpoise Driven Life,…, Evidence that Demands a Verdict) from people just like them who got theirs because someone just like them told them to get one. And these books have exactly the answers to exactly the questions that people who only buy books that are recommended to them by people who have the same, exact questions:

    1. How do keep going if there isn’t something better that does not suck so much?
    2. How do I keep everything in the world from always changing for the worst?

    For each question science has no answers. In fact science – which doesn’t start with the proposition that I am horrible *or* that change is bad – has no motivation to cross the line of demarcation into non-science. But into this ‘vacuum’ rushes a storybook from the friend in church that reads and recommends such storybooks. They don’t even need to read the book. In fact, the low WORDSUM score of the average Glenn Beck book purchaser combined with the average length an adult spends on the toilet reading Glenn Beck predicts that no one actually reads these books anyway.

    But there the book sets on your coffee table and screams at you that the science is never certain enough to believe because it keeps changing all the time. Unlike the iron age texts.

    What I believe but cannot prove – these folks really, actually do believe in climate change. They are not fools who cannot tell that the weather is getting weirder every year. They know this. What they do not know is who can fix it without changing *anything* that could cost them money and peace of mind. Just imagine that Bill O’Reilly wakes up tomorrow and just *knows* that AGW is real. Who can he put on the air that could talk about the subject without the sound of 3,000,000 heads exploding? That would be a ratings nightmare.

  4. Matt B.

    It occurs to me that motivated reasoning relates to my “threshold” concept of decision making. I read that neurons fire whenever they reach a threshold of input, and I figure some things (including introspection and sensory input) might affect those thresholds, then I extrapolated upward to hypothesize that thresholds for conscious choices could be altered, and this accounts for differences in personality, such as political leanings. When people have different personalities, that means that there is some stimulus to which they would react differently. So there’s little possibility of a universally effective ad campaign.

  5. Dark Tent

    Word usage can reveal biased reasoning.

    “If you’re committed to opposing nuclear power, you will drive up the estimates of death from Chernobyl. If you’re a fan of nuclear power, you’ll be inherently skeptical of really high Chernobyl death counts. And you’ll “reason” accordingly.”

  6. Bobito

    @3 Just imagine that Bill O’Reilly wakes up tomorrow and just *knows* that AGW is real

    This is a big part of the issue. Not only with the sound of 3,000,000 heads exploding but with the long term ramifications of “flip flopping”. Pundits and politicians can never admit they are wrong because their “enemies” will use that “flip flop” as a tool to discredit every other opinion the person has. When any point of contention arises, the “enemy” will say “ya, but remember when you were all anti AGW then you changed your mind?” as if the ability to change one’s opinion in the face of new information is a sign that they cannot be trusted.

    This happens with normal people was well. They get so lost in the left/right, religious/agnostic, liberal/conservative debate that they just “tote the party line” rather than examining not only the facts, but what they really feel about the subject. As if deferring to the “other side” on any subject chips away at the foundation of their beliefs.

    As issues become more mature, people learn and grow, and new information arises shouldn’t it be considered a virtue to be able to modify your stance not a weakness?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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