Friday, June 27, 2014

Another Good Article by Dan Kahan

The source of the public conflict over climate change is not too little rationality but in a sense too much. Ordinary members of the public are too good at extracting from information the significance it has in their everyday lives. What an ordinary person does—as consumer, voter, or participant in public discussions—is too inconsequential to affect either the climate or climate-change policymaking. Accordingly, if her actions in one of those capacities reflects a misunderstanding of the basic facts on global warming, neither she nor anyone she cares about will face any greater risk. But because positions on climate change have become such a readily identifiable indicator of ones’ cultural commitments, adopting a stance toward climate change that deviates from the one that prevails among her closest associates could have devastating consequences, psychic and material. Thus, it is perfectly rational—perfectly in line with using information appropriately to achieve an important personal end—for that individual to attend to information on in a manner that more reliably connects her beliefs about climate change to the ones that predominate among her peers than to the best available scientific evidence.
His empirical claim is that disbelief in global warming, or in evolution, is not evidence of scientific ignorance. If you separate groups on roughly a left/right basis, belief in warming increases with increasing scientific intelligence (measured in other ways) in the group predisposed to believe in it (left), decreases with increasing scientific intelligence in the group predisposed not to believe in it (right). Similarly with evolution if you divide the groups into more or less religious. His explanation ...:
If that person happens to enjoy greater proficiency in the skills and dispositions necessary to make sense of such evidence, then she can simply use those capacities to do an even better job at forming identity-protective beliefs.
The article is too long and starts with an irrelevant analogy to observer effects in quantum mechanics, but it has lots of interesting stuff in it. Among other things, if you test people to see how much they understand about the theory of evolution, those who believe in it do no better than those who don't. Similarly for global warming.


At 8:00 AM, June 28, 2014, OpenID whswhs said...

The trouble with Kahan's analysis is that he seems to recognize the identity-protective aspect of conservatives denying AGW, but pays no attention to the identity-protective aspect of liberals affirming it. And yet a lot of the people I know seem both to believe in AGW and to lack an understanding of the physical and statistical reasoning.

As Nietzsche put it, "'The ass arrived, beautiful and most brave'—the philosopher's conviction came on stage."

At 9:59 AM, June 28, 2014, Blogger Russ Nelson said...

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At 9:59 AM, June 28, 2014, Blogger Russ Nelson said...

Identity protection is omnipresent in every collective activity.

At 10:19 AM, June 28, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

I've suggested to Kahan that some of what he takes for granted about warming is evidence that his analysis applies to himself. One of the questions designed to test knowledge of warming was whether “human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions.” He took it for granted that it was true. It's not at all clear, given that global sea level rise by 2050 in the IPCC high emissions scenario is only five to seven inches, and the assumptions of that scenario become less and less certain the farther into the future you go.

At 7:18 AM, June 29, 2014, Anonymous Daublin said...

It's an important point that deserves wider recognition. I'd divide it into two parts.

One is that it's devastating to take a view on these matters that is contrary to the progressive stance. I have lost both friends and colleagues over it. As best as I can tell, they don't even personally care about it themselves; they just don't want to get too close to me, because their own friends might do it to them.

Second is that people know these questions make no difference in their everyday life. It's not unlike relativity from the persective of someone that designs automobiles. It is more rational, not less, to give mere lip service to physical laws that are totally irrelevant to the things that directly matter to you.

At 1:06 PM, June 29, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Daublin: I would say people who don't want to be friends with you anymore because of your opinions on global warming are not really worth it anyway. Some of my friends hold very different opinions than I do on certain things - such as the EU, nuclear energy, or global warming, or politics in general. The guy I played with in a band for 4 years (the band quit after his first child was born) supports Greenpeace financially and is quite strongly against nuclear power (these to things seem to often go together). I think that Greenpeace do more harm than they do good and that nuclear power is at least in the short term the best option for someone who is anxious about pollution. Still, he is a good friend of mine. If people reject others based on such thing, I'd say it is a sign of fanaticism. Such people then live in their bubbles (since they shun everyone who does not already agree with them) and it is quite a sad look from the outside. Of course, this behaviour is in no way restricted to opinions about global warming or those others I mentioned. I've met quite a few libertarians that are like that as well and they are pretty annoying.

At 12:19 AM, June 30, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tibor: There's a webbed interview with one of the two authors of a well known article that provided evidence against the claim that increases in the minimum wage reduce employment of unskilled workers. That's a result that economists, myself included, don't like, since it goes directly against what one would expect from economic theory as well as a good deal of evidence. The article has been widely cited by people who want to sharply increase the minimum wage.

In the interview, he describes losing friends, colleagues, as a result of the article, which I found depressing. I don't like the conclusion, but if that's what his research showed he was obviously entitled to publish it.

At 1:16 PM, June 30, 2014, Blogger Dimitriy said...

Aren't there ways that ordinary people can benefit from an understanding of the facts? For instance, is real estate in Canada and Alaska a good investment?

At 9:48 AM, July 01, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

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At 9:50 AM, July 01, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Well, the ideal scenario is that people who don't like it write a rebuttal and are happy to be given an opportunity to clarify their thoughts so that they hold under scrutiny :) But unless they find out dishonesty or striking incompetence on the side of the original researcher this should not lead to losing colleagues or even friendships. It is a nice test of a character (of those colleagues and friends who don't like your results) though.

By the way, what is the title of the article and why do you think that the article reached such a conclusion? (I presume that you disagree with the result and therefore there must have been a mistake from your point of view)

This is actually not even unique to social science, sadly (and not even to social science + ecology). A colleague told me about her friend who did some research about birds and actually was recreating a scenario from an older article (supposedly widely cited...I have no idea about the field of ornithology...except that birds are dinosaurs which I know from xkcd :D). The conclusions were that the original researchers used a very badly chosen sample (birds at the university campus really) of one species and extended their results to behaviour of all birds (or perhaps just birds of that species, I don't remember it perfectly)...which they then proved by giving examples to be completely wrong. However, the journal they tried to publish the results in also had the original authors as reviewers. They rejected the article saying that the new guys did not manage to recreate the experiment exactly, so its results are invalid.

If one invests several years of his time to do something which gives positive results, gets credit for those results and they then turn out to be wrong, there is a good chance he will have such hostility towards those who proved him wrong...and at the same time negative results are unfortunately never that "sexy". I guess this is better in mathematics, but probably all other fields suffer from this to a degree.

Of course, the story is hearsay,I have no means of verifying it (apart from trusting that colleague) it could be that there were actually good reasons for the article to be rejected and that the author simply did not understand them - or did not want to admit them. Still, it does not sound to me as something wholly unlikely to happen. I think it goes also with the way academia works in real world versus the ideal world.

At 6:32 AM, July 02, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worth a read. "Below is the near final draft of what became chapter 9 of my book Risk, published in 1995. The process writing it transformed me from a firm believer in man-made global warming into a climate change agnostic – a position to which I still adhere"

At 4:21 PM, July 05, 2014, Blogger Richard O. Hammer said...

The contribution of Timur Kuran in his book "Private Truths, Public Lies" relates to this discussion. I did not see it in Dan Kahan's references.

I believe that most people who cling to belief in global warming do so because of the policy implications. Global warming, when assumed to be true, supports large expansions in government regulation of human industry. People who want those increases in government regulation therefore embrace global warming as one more argument for their cause, or so it seems to me.


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