Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A good point about climate change beliefs, and beliefs in general

Dan Kahan's research deals largely with individuals' adoption of beliefs as a means of identifying with some kind of ideological group: e.g., someone denies that global warming is a problem, not as a result of weighing the evidence but because the person wants to identify with fellow conservatives, who tend to hold that belief. I'm not completely convinced that the mechanism for belief adoption is exactly as Kahan says it is, but it does seem perfectly clear that publicly stated opinions are not always about truth and may not even be based on perceived truth.

Arnold Kling comments on Kahan:
Kahan advises climate worriers to try to engage in public discussion in ways that are less “culturally assaultive.” This assumes that climate worriers care more about climate policy than about asserting their moral and intellectual superiority over conservatives. The most charitable I can be is to say that I am willing to wait and see whether that is the case.
I can put it a bit more charitably: even if the "worriers" are correct, some of them are adopting the right belief for the wrong reason. Kahan focuses on those who deny global warming for the wrong reasons (although he may very well address the flip side somewhere). One might infer from this treatment that everyone who believes in global warming does so for the right reasons, or that it doesn't matter why they think what they do as long as they end up at the correct conclusion. In fact, it is essential to recognize that lots of belief in global warming is poorly founded, and that this is part of what makes the discussion "culturally assaultive." It is a mistake to assume that we can detach the way beliefs are defended in some public arena from the way those beliefs were formed in the first place.

Which is not to say that there isn't some actual truth in the matter. In this case, I really have no doubt that global warming is a problem that warrants action, and I don't think that anyone approaching the issue with even a pretense of objectivity can reasonably claim otherwise. But supporting a reasonable conclusion for the wrong reasons doesn't do any good. I see this kind of thing all the time, with respect to lots of issues. For example, I might agree with someone that having a minimum wage is a good idea, but if someone denies that the efficiency effects even exist, I can't take their opinion very seriously. It becomes a real problem when someone who does not support minimum wage encounters such an opinion. One can then jump to the conclusion that those who support minimum wage don't even understand its effects, avoiding the reasonable discussion that could be had about how severe the inefficiencies created really are and whether it is worth it to create these inefficiencies.

I don't know whether framing public debate this way makes me feel more or less optimistic about the potential for resolving disagreements constructively.

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