Global Warming, the Tea Party, and Unwavering Certainty

By Chris Mooney | September 9, 2011 9:16 am

With such an amazing guest post on Wednesday, I didn’t get to post my own DeSmogBlog piece (which is actually related to, but far less consequential than, Andrea Kuszewski’s). So I thought I would do it now.

Basically, the piece looks at new data showing that Tea Partiers are considerably worse than mainline Republicans in their rejection of global warming. What I find most disturbing about this is the level of certainty among Tea Party members that they’re right–e.g., the people who are most wrong are most sure of themselves.

Once again, reminds me of Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats thought this state of affairs signaled the Second Coming was at hand. Unfortunately, I think it’s part of human nature and will be with us as long as we’re on this rock.

Anyway, more specifically with regard to Tea Partiers’ certainty:

“Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are ‘very well informed’ about global warming than the other groups,” according to the Yale study. “Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they ‘do not need any more information’ about global warming to make up their mind.”

What do we make of this? Why would this be? Here’s my attempt to answer:

Well, the study also shows that Tea Partiers are more likely than other Republicans to be “born again” Christians and to doubt evolution, and highly individualistic and anti-egalitarian in their moral values.

In short, what we appear to be seeing in them is a kind of merger of right wing free market views on the one hand, and the unwavering certainty associated with certain forms of fundamentalist religion on the other.

They know they’re right, they know that liberals and scientists—and most of all, President Obama—are wrong, and there is no swaying them in that. (There is also some reason to think that Tea Party members are authoritarian in their outlook, wanting to impose various types of Christian views in government.)

When you merge this with previous data on white male conservatives and climate change, it becomes apparent that the person least likely to change his mind on this issue and accept the science is a 1) white 2) male 3) conservative 4) Tea Party American.

You can read the full DeSmogBlog item here.


Comments (25)

  1. Science deals with reality. You can be skeptical of its methods and conclusions – which is fine if that’s genuine, because the worse that can happen is that both will be re-examined, and possibly refined… or… you can be a denialist because you’ve assumed something to be more fundamental than a concern for how reality really is. The Republican denialism falls into this latter category.
    The main motivation for GOP denial of evolution is mere religion; if holy texts are right FIRST, then nothing can follow to dislodge that, hence evolution can’t be believed.
    On climate, it’s libertarianism. The axiom is that whatever happens, government intrusion into people’s lives is always a bad thing. That’s assumed irrespective of how that view’s effects compare with what goes on in other countries (like Sweden, for example). After that, any attempt to persuade people they should give up a bit of their freedom to do something for everyone’s sake MUST be wrong, and ‘therefore’ climate science must be a hoax.
    So what really matters are religious and ideological presuppositions. They skew everything. And they have nothing to do with science or reality.
    The Republicans are a bunch of libertarian Christians, so it follows that climate and evolution denial is the best election strategy for the GOP candidates. Even if it’s completey divorced from reality. That’s why Jon Huntsman, who stands up for the reality of climate science and evolution is having such a tough time, quite apart from what his policies actually are.

    Here’s what should happen:

    Genuine interest in reality –> attempt to understand the facts –> conclusions –> policy

    Here’s what does happen:

    Religious/ideological assumption –> denial of reality that doesn’t fit with that –> therefore, science and reality are discarded –> policy not based on reality

    For a complete run-down of what every Republican candidate says on evolution and climate, see here:

    … and here are Huntsman, Perry and Bachmann’s most recent comments from the GOP debate two days ago:

  2. TTT

    Nothing in conservatism makes sense except in light of creationism.

  3. Chris Mooney

    #2 I’m not sure I’d go that far. I’d say, rather, that Creationism is one indicator of this need for absolute certainty….and it confers such certainty.

    See here

  4. Randy

    I agree with Luke but would word it slightly differently and simply state that in many people their ideology, either political or religious, overshadows their critical analysis skills. I’m especially struck when I read a conservative columnist, who otherwise seems relatively smart, launch a misguided or factually incorrect attack on climate science.

    For politicians, my concern is that if they don’t have enough common sense to understand evolution or climate science, or at least how to distinguish peer-reviewed science from ideology-based polemics, then how can we trust them to make other decisions?

  5. Al Cibiades

    Are these manifestations of two related but different evolutionary survival strategies: fear and unquestioned absolutism, and curiosity and constant re-examination?

  6. Dave in Calif

    Yep, them EVIL white men…hang them all…wait I’m a white man and I don’t wanna die, at least not yet 🙂
    Folks you don’t have to be believer to be a conservative, thank god. I’m a fiscal conservative, you want something you WORK for it, you SAVE for it. Heck the scientists (that’s you folks!) out there KNOW you had to work for what you have achieved not like the liberals who want to TAKE what you have and give it to some loser (like themselves) everyone is happy, the playing field is level no winner, no losers. Is that what you REALLY want, nothing will be built, nothing achieved anymore, what for? I know you dont’ want that, so what are you? Not liberals and not bible thumping conservatives. I don’t grok this….

  7. Chris Mooney

    You would have to come up with a pretty developed evolutionary theory to explain why you would find both in one species varying to a great extent.

  8. Jeff Patterson

    Ironically, it is the climatologists who proclaim a certainty the science does not support. James Taylor once wrote “Yeah, we got holy scriptures here that prove us to be right,
    in believing out loud what we wish to be true.” He was of course poking fundamentalist but the principle applies equally well to the self-referential logic used by the IPCC when they proclaim “we got these computer models here that prove us to be right”. Where do the models come from? From our understanding of the physical properties and processes which produce our climate. What do we hope to prove with them? That our understanding of the physical properties and processes which produce our climate are correct. Bzzzt.

    Honest climatologists have acknowledged the epistemological issues inherent in attempting to increase knowledge through computer simulation. Simulation is not experimentation. The outcome of a simulation is completely determined prior to hitting the run button by the initial conditions and physical constants chosen by the programmer. Putting aside for the moment that the uncertainties in all these factors far out weigh the tiny effect they attempt to detect, it is a fundamental axiom of information theory that we can learn nothing from an “experiment” whose outcome is predetermined.

    One can use simulation to validate the underlying equations only by demonstrating that the simulation results match observed real world phenomena and to date these models have proven to have precisely zero predictive value. The scientist mumble about natural variation masking decadal trends, ignoring the fact that errors accumulate in integrative systems and uncertainty in such simulations always increases with run time. Never mind, they say, in the long run we know we’re right, we have these models here to prove it.

  9. vel

    The TP think they are “well informed” because they have found “answers” that agree with them and their desires. They got what they wanted and reality be damned.

  10. In response to Jeff Patterson’s comments

    “One can use simulation to validate the underlying equations only by demonstrating that the simulation results match observed real world phenomena and to date these models have proven to have precisely zero predictive value.”

    Models are based on ever-improving understanding. It’s not true they are useless. In fact, there are several examples where computer models have under-estimated the severity of climate change and its effects. For example, take those regarding Arctic ice melt:

    For more examples, details and information, see the following list of denialist arguments and scroll down to “Models Are Unreliable” and all the sub-categories of that.

  11. Chris

    You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.
    –Doctor Who

  12. Hugo Schmidt

    Because it needs to be said:

    Don’t forget the red button!

    Re:the Tea Party, their conclusions are bad, but their reasoning is sound. It’s called reductio ad absurdum. If the conclusions are insane, the premises can’t be valid. People have been telling them for years that the conclusion of accepting mainstream climate science is to give huge amounts of power and money to the sinister likes of Al Gore. Ergo, they conclude that it’s a load of hoey.

    Can’t really fault that line of reasoning.

  13. Nullius in Verba

    I find this concept of “the people who are most wrong are most sure of themselves” to be very interesting. Does that mean that you’re not sure of yourselves? Because if so, I haven’t seen any sign of it. You seem as sure of your position as the climate sceptics do. Your uncertainty does not visibly waver either.

    The only way I can see that working is if you’re less certain than you appear, and you’re putting up a bold and confident front, for some reason. I don’t suppose you would tell me if you were, but it seems to be the implication of what you say. It seems ironic that the only way you could claim to be a part of the ‘best who lack all conviction’ yourselves would be to concede that the sceptics might have a point. I shall await that event with interest.


    I find it fascinating that you would cite an example where the models got it wrong in support of your statement that they’re not useless. The models got it wrong because they only considered temperature as a cause of changing ice extent – when in this case it was a change in the prevailing wind direction causing more pack ice to be pushed southwards into warmer waters. There’s no particular reason to think that the change in wind pattern is associated with global warming, or that one pattern is any more likely than the other in a warmer world. It flips, every now and then.

    But as usual, whenever anything suggests global warming it is confidently ascribed to climate-not-weather, even though it’s based on only a few year’s worth of data in one small part of the globe. While the fact that the Antarctic sea ice is not melting, however, is said to be due to local effects with no relation to global warming and doesn’t mean anything at all – if anyone even mentions it. Convenient, eh?

  14. #8 and #12: I was curious whether there would be a denialist response and here it is – ignore the study and go on the attack. Thanks for your feedback.

    And #12, look up the predictions for Antarctica for the next decade or two. You might be surprised.

  15. Nullius in Verba


    “ignore the study and go on the attack”

    Which study?

    “look up the predictions for Antarctica for the next decade or two”

    Do you mean this one?

    Oh, sorry, that one was for the last decade or two…

  16. When you merge this with previous data on white male conservatives and climate change,
    it becomes apparent that the person least likely to change his mind on this issue
    and accept the science is a 1) white 2) male 3) conservative 4) Tea Party American.

    5) And makes inaccurate global warming comments on FreeRepublic hourly.

  17. Forest

    It would be interesting to see the percentage of anticlimate-change responders found in the editorial and op-ed blogs who are in some way remunerated by the fossil fuel industry. The pattern I see based on the same outdated, ignorant or disingenuous arguments which seem to use the same wording and personal debasement attacks is one of paid (fossil) employees whose job is to cast drought on science. Anything that is not 100% proven must be doubted and summarily dismissed as “junk”. High probability forecasts, based on peer-reviewed science and evidence, apparently count for nothing. If scientists predicted a 98% earth-asteroid collision, which could exterminate all life, but the cost to send a mission to stop it would be about the same as fighting climate change, I imagine the 2% doubt would be enough to argue for doing nothing because it would jeopardize the economy.

  18. Nullius in Verba

    Or to put it more briefly…

    Virtually none of the commenters would be paid by the fossil fuel industry, while many of the climate scientists are. The fossil fuel conspiracy theories are ad hominem, untrue, and equally applicable to both sides.

    There’s a lot more wrong than just not having shown 100% proof. If scientists predicted a 98% earth-asteroid collision, they wouldn’t be hiding the data or calculations, seeking to prevent them being scrutinised.

  19. JMW

    Chris, it seems to me that your language implies that religious fundamentalists are a) in denial about climate science and evolution and b) highly certain of their opinions, as if these two things are not related.

    But I think that one thing you might want to consider is that religious fundamentalists deny climate science and evolution because they have a need for certainty. They must have concrete, 100% guaranteed answers to everything. Since science cannot provide this, they disbelieve the science.

    It’s this lack of tolerance of doubt, lack of tolerance of uncertainty, that is a central thesis of “Voltaire’s Bastards”. I recommend it to you.

  20. Kirk

    The second coming Yeats alluded to was another world war, far worse than anything seen before, run by the Rough Beast. In Kevin Kline’s terms the Rough Beast is the Technium, humankind merged with the artifacts of our technology. That’s pretty awesome foresight for a poem written in 1920. Have drones much?

  21. Jeff Patterson

    @ Luke Scientiae – Your reasoning is unsound. When observations exceed the confidence bounds of a model’s projection, in either direction, the only scientifically sound conclusion that can be drawn is the the model is incorrect. When observation exceed predictions, it is pure speculation to assign attribution to one factor (e.g. CO2 emissions) and say “see, it’s worse than we thought”. An equally valid (and equally speculative) conclusion is that the man induced component of GW is negligible and is being swamped by natural factors beyond our control.

    “Models are based on ever-improving understanding.” – No doubt and I’m all for research which furthers that goal. In the mean time, we need much more transparency as to the model inadequacies and level of uncertainty in these projections so that policy makers can make realistic cost/benefit assessments.

  22. Nullius in Verba

    “They must have concrete, 100% guaranteed answers to everything. Since science cannot provide this, they disbelieve the science.”

    But since science – when correctly applied – provides more certainty than any other method, wouldn’t that imply they ought to believe in it more than most people?

    I don’t know anyone quite that fundamental, so I couldn’t say whether you might be right or not. Still, I can’t help thinking it would be better than having no requirement for having any answers to anything.

  23. JMW

    @22 Nullius. Hi! Having debated people like this in other fora, what I find is that they need the 100% certainty. Science cannot offer this, but religious texts do say, “This is the way it is.” Religious texts do not say, “This is the way it might be.”

    And because they need that absolute certainty, they take the answer that gives them what they want.

    I have to stress that’s just my reading of it, influenced in part by “Voltaire’s Bastards”, among others.

  24. Nullius in Verba


    Well, like I say, I don’t know anybody that fundamental, so I’m not saying you’re wrong. I do know a lot of climate sceptics, though, most of who are not noticeably religious, and lack of 100% certainly is most definitely not the reason they doubt.

    Supposing what you say of fundamentalists to be true, I do wonder if the reason might not be the other way round. They’re religious, and used to statements of certainty, and therefore they demand 100% certainty. For most people I think the religion comes first – from their upbringing in a particular community – and their worldview subsequently gets fitted around that prior belief. I’m not saying it’s so – just a possibility worth considering.

    If you started from a position only of seeking certainty, and then decided whether to be religious or scientific in your outlook, I think you might well go for science. As they say, would you fly in a plane designed by theologians?


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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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