Thursday, October 15, 2015

Annals of Improbable Anatomical Feats

Language has developed some colorful and vulgar, but wonderfully expressive ways of characterizing some human foibles. "Jumping through one's own asshole" is a terrific way of capturing the intellectual lengths that some go to defend improbable points of view or core beliefs.

A lot of what most people believe is either highly speculative fabrication or outright nonsense. It is counter intuitive to the evolutionary psychologist in me that such (frequently) nonsensical beliefs could be adaptive in the Darwinian sense, but their prevalence strongly suggests otherwise.

For example, some very smart guys, like Richard Dawkins, are convinced that religion is a sort of intellectual disease that has spread through human populations to everyone's detriment. I am pretty sure that they are nuts on this point, even though I'm not religious myself. Benjamin Franklin saw more deeply, I think, when he noted that he was very unhappy with his own behavior during his atheistic period, and decided that a good religion was a useful inducement to good behavior. Guys like Dawkins have altogether too much respect for human intellect and way too little for the power of a useful myth.

Did I mention that this post is actually about climate science and climate myth? I spend a lot of time talking to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialists and one thing that I've noticed is that many of them are pretty well informed on the issue - not as well informed as the actual climate scientists they scorn, of course, but better informed than most of the general public which takes the scientists seriously. Information, in their case, has not improved their judgement.

Why not? My short answer is that they are pretty good at the intellectual equivalent of the improbable anatomical feat I mentioned in my first paragraph. The secret to believing egregious nonsense is to not insist on logical consistency. Internal consistency is replaced by the necessity to be consistent with some external doctrine. For the AGW denialists of my acquaintance, that external doctrine is almost invariably right wing politics.

So how exactly does a seemingly routine matter of fact become a purely political argument? It has to start, I think, with the fact that an immensely wealthy and powerful interest group poured millions into a campaign to demonize climate science and climate scientists. That probably wouldn't have worked except for an even bigger and longer lived campaign to demonize science and government. It's pretty clear that any realistic action to control AGW will require coordinated global government action, and that is anathema to a whole bunch of the foolish.