An example of the mad climate change debate, showing America’s dysfunctionality

Summary: In 2008 I first wrote about the climate change public policy debate as an example of the increasing dysfunctionality of America’s ability to see, understand, and act upon our changing world. Despite the attention of our most intelligent and educated people, the problem has grown worse. This post provides yet another example, ground-level reporting about how our politics make us stupid.  {1st of 2 posts.}

“Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.”
— From Robert A. Heinlein’s novella “Gulf” (1949), later published in Assignment in Eternity.

Logical contradiction
Embrace the truth!

Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg explains that “Even Skeptics Can Profit From Climate Change“. He’s an investment expert (trained as an attorney) whose work I’ve followed for years (his website is The Big Picture).  Opening…

A new Mercer research report, “Investing in a Time of Climate Change,” is fascinating for what it is (and isn’t): a pure investment thesis, not a screed on science or politics.

… I don’t want to debate the science, but rather to focus on the investment risks the report discusses. As we have noted before, this is a question of industry market share, corporate profits and investment performance — not science. In the real world, climate-change deniers are and will be giant money losers.

I replied on Twitter that although the future is unknown, bets on climate change during the past decade or two probably would not have been profitable — as explained by the IPCC in their 2012 report “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” (SREX), and in AR5, the most recent IPCC report — from which I quoted…

Overall, the most robust global changes in climate extremes are seen in measures of daily temperature, including to some extent, heat waves. Precipitation extremes also appear to be increasing, but there is large spatial variability, and observed trends in droughts are still uncertain except in a few regions. … There is limited evidence of changes in extremes associated with other climate variables since the mid-20th century.  {AR5, WG1, chapter 2}

This is an unambiguous conclusion, supported by a wide range of data. The fraction of a degree in warming during the past few decades provides no basis for successful “bets”. As for other forms of extreme climate, there is no trend in global tropical storm numbers and intensity, in global sea ice area — and in the US, in tornado and wildfire numbers and intensity (as shown by Prof Botkin and in this post).

The response reveals much

Ritholz’s response was also unambiguous: he blocked me on Twitter, a typical reaction of people getting their truths from climate activists. They pay little attention to the IPCC but freak when confronted with its conclusions that disagree with theirs. The IPCC was the “gold standard” description of climate science research — the most reliable statement of climate scientists’ consensus. By 2011 activists were saying it was “too conservative”, which became a widespread response to the release of AR5 in 2013 (e.g., see Inside Climate News, The Daily Climate, and Yale’s Environment 360).

This is how so many discussions end in America, on the Right as well as the Left. Conservatives tend to react with incredulity when told that tax cuts usually reduce revenue, that torture produces unreliable answers, and that foreign armies usually lose to local insurgents no matter how many they kill.

Truth in science
Graphic designed by IdeaTree Company.

A small but telling problem in Ritholtz’s article

The report is especially timely, given a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report showing the so-called global-warming hiatus was the result of an error in measuring ocean temperatures. There has been no slowdown in warming, according to the latest data.

Activists mislead their flock by misrepsentation of the science literature, one reason more information has not improved the public policy debate. As we see in the above by Ritholtz. The Karl et al paper in Science is not a “NOAA report” (I confirmed this with NOAA’s media liaison); it is “a study by NOAA scientists”. NOAA’s scientific integrity policy allows its scientists to publish conclusions irrespective of NOAA’s official positions, nor do their publications represent NOAA’s official positions (unless stated so).

Nor is it a definitive answer; rather this study adds to the several dozen papers giving explanations for the pause — some complementary, some contradictory. Karl gives a different analysis of the ocean’s temperatures than others, hence its significance. Here are initial thoughts by several climate scientists about the paper.

Eventually a consensus will form. Until then activists on both side gleefully point to individual reports as gospel, as if “their” scientists have priority over the others.

Ritholz points us to a larger problem: politics makes us stupid

The cacophony of the climate change public policy debate shows the dysfunctionality that has enmeshed so many of our key issues. We have clear guidance from the major climate agencies, yet intelligent and educated people prefer to listen to activists — their tribal leaders, Left and Right.

Ezra Klein at VOX tells us about some disturbing research that explains how this happens: “How politics makes us stupid” — Excerpt…

There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion. … It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information … If only the citizenry were more informed … then there wouldn’t be all this fighting. It’s a seductive model. … It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all.

… In April and May of 2013, Yale Law professor Dan Kahan — working with coauthors Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic — set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates?

… {experiments showed that} people weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

… Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: “What we believe about the facts,” he writes, “tells us who we are.” And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.

A later article is even clearer: “Why the most informed voters are often the most badly misled” by Ezra Klein at VOX — Excerpt:

In 2006, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels presented a paper titled “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy.” …

Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.

It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge — which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship by spouting things that sound that like facts, but often aren’t …

Similar experiments have shown similar self-deception among Democrats when the questions favor Republican ideas or politicians. Achens and Bartels’s conclusion is grim: much of what looks like learning in American politics is actually, they argue, an elaborate performance of justifying the beliefs we already hold. “Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize.”

To see how this works, it’s worth looking at an experiment conducted by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan. In it, Kahan and his colleagues showed 1,500 people sample biographies of highly accomplished scientists alongside a summaries {sic} of their research. Then they asked whether the scientist was indeed an expert. It turned out that people’s actual definition of “expert” is “a credentialed person who agrees with me.”

For more examples of this see Climate denial by Left & Right dominates the public debate.

Postcards from the frontier of science

For More Information

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also, see these posts about the pause:



10 thoughts on “An example of the mad climate change debate, showing America’s dysfunctionality

  1. The most concise expression of the tail end of this post I’ve ever heard was Robert Heinlein’s: “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” A curtain was lifted from my eyes when I read that.

    1. Cloa,

      “Given tax revenue has remained at a steady percentage of US GDP irrespective of the tax regime”

      That’s not correct. Federal revenue (all sources) has swung from 14.4% to 19.7% of GDP. Those are giant swings. The graph clearly shows the massive drops from the Reagan and Bush Jr. tax cuts.


      Federal revenue per gdp


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