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Deniers on the couch again

16 Oct 2019 | OP ED Watch

Yet another professor has weighed in with a psychological diagnosis of people who think there’s no global warming crisis if it’s not getting scarily hot out there. It seems we do know but, with the aid of Sigmund Freud, we repress the knowledge. See, deniers “aren’t reasoning in the careful manner of a judge who impartially weighs up all the evidence. Instead, they’re reasoning in the manner of a defence lawyer who clutches for post hoc rationalisations to defend an initial gut instinct.” Brutal. We’re dumb and panicky. Unlike them. Which tends to short-circuit rational discourse in the name of rational discourse.

On the plus side, if the alarmists listen to this analysis by David Hall of the University of Auckland they will place cooling cloths on our fevered brows and talk softly to us rather than yell that we’re idiots. The piece, accompanied by an anti-scientific image of someone burying their head in the sand exactly the way ostriches don’t when danger threatens, explains condescendingly that “Climate change denial involves glimpsing the horrible reality, but defending oneself against it.” So we do know. And yet we don’t. We’re such a mess.

OK, some of us do know; Hall says “It is well established that fossil fuel companies have long known about climate change, yet sought to frustrate wider public understanding.” And about them nothing can be done. But for the rest, he patiently explains, “This is why brow-beating deniers with further climate science is unlikely to succeed: their faculty of reason is motivated to defend itself from revising its beliefs.” Instead we will be carefully manipulated back toward mental health: “Experiments have shown that, if the risks and realities of climate change are reframed as opportunities for community relationship building and societal development, then deniers can shift their views. Similarly, in the US context, appealing to conservative values like patriotism, obeying authority and defending the purity of nature can encourage conservatives to support pro-environmental actions.”

Now to be fair, Hall is correct that certain kinds of attitudes across a broad range of issues, from concern for social order to fear of reckless experiments, do tend to correlate with skepticism about climate change. And indeed to at least small-c political conservatism. He even cites Jonathan Haidt, a liberal psychologist who is unusually perceptive about the preconceptions of his own intellectual (and sociological) allies as well as of others. But here’s the familiar tu quoque problem when you declare that anyone who disagrees with you has ipso facto got something embarrassingly wrong with their brain.

If skepticism correlates with certain psychological traits, and is indeed to be explained as an obtuse and malevolent by-product of them, then it stands to reason that alarmism does as well and can be explained as a by-product of them not of rational thought. If a skeptic’s beliefs about climate can be dismissed as an illusion constructed as a psychological defence mechanism, then so can alarmists’ beliefs about climate, and indeed anyone’s beliefs about anything, including David Hall’s beliefs about skeptics.

The problem here is not just what we say about coastal homeowners who claim to believe in climate change and rising sea levels but don’t take steps to protect their property, or move inland. It’s that once we start ascribing some people’s supposedly rational thoughts to obscure psychological forces we will quickly find ourselves explaining all political and social ideologies we don’t share as the product of the Id rather than the rational mind… and then we are obliged to explain all ideologies we do share the same way (including that one) thus abolishing the very possibility of rational discourse and resorting to shouting, shaming, and taking “direct action” to bypass democracy and force your deranged, stupid, evil opponents to…

Oh dear. That sounds like the alarmists.

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