During the 2020 US presidential election campaign, one of the starkest visual differences between Trump and Biden supporters was in the wearing of masks. Most Biden supporters appeared to wear masks, whereas most Trump supporters didn’t.
Even during Trump’s announcement of his nomination of Judge Amy Barrett to the US Supreme Court, very few people in the White House Rose Garden were wearing a mask. Worse still, some of the guests were seen hugging and kissing each other.
As a result, the White House has become a COVID-19 ‘hotspot’ or super-spreader location, with seven attendees at the Justice Amy Barrett nomination announcement testing positive for coronavirus – even President Trump and the First Lady. More people caught the virus at the White House election ‘celebration night’. 130 Secret Service agents have also tested positive.
It is clear that at least some, if not most, of Trump supporters refuse to wear masks on political grounds. They seem to associate mask wearing with what they perceive to be ‘liberal’ pro-science attitudes. It is also possible that some Biden supporters might wear masks as a form of visual political opposition to the Trump supporters. In either case, this is irrational tribal behaviour.
A similar phenomenon may be occurring in the climate change debate. Some beliefs against human causes of climate change may be genuinely (but mistakenly) held on the basis of personal interpretation of the evidence. But at least some of the far-right wing opposition is due to a perception of climate science being some sort of left-wing plot against fossil fuel industries.
The far left is not immune from such irrational tribal behaviour either. At least some of the opposition to GMOs and vaccines seems to be based on ideological opposition to large agribusinesses and the pharmaceutical industry, rather than on evidence-based health concerns.
Another example is where some atheists oppose the idea of free will simply because Christians believe in it. (This is despite the fact that prominent atheists such as Professor Daniel Dennett also believe in free will).
The tribal truth fallacy lies not in the falsity of beliefs about mask wearing, climate change, GMOs, vaccines or free will per se; but in the basis for these beliefs being identification with one’s own tribe or opposition to a rival tribe.
The following article is adapted from a speech to be delivered at the Melbourne March for Science on Saturday 22 April, 2017.
The mission posted on the March for Science international website states:
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest. The March for Science is a celebration of science.
To me, it seems the reason concerned people across the planet are marching today is that, at least for the major players in the English-speaking world, there are major threats to the global culture of science.
Why? A clear understanding of what is happening with, for example, the atmosphere, oceans and climate creates irreconcilable problems for powerful vested interests, particularly in the fossil fuel and coastal real estate sectors.
Contrary to the data-free “neocon/trickle down” belief system, the observed dissonance implies that we need robust, enforceable national and international tax and regulatory structures to drive the necessary innovation and renewal that will ensure global sustainability and a decent future for humanity and other, complex life forms.
In the USA, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 incorporates massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
And, though it in no sense reflects political hostility and deliberate ignorance, British scientists are fearful that Brexit will have a terrible impact on their funding and collaborative arrangements.
How does this affect us in Australia? Why should we care? The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere. NOAA records, analyses and curates much of the world’s climate science data. A degraded EPA provides a disastrous model for all corrupt and regressive regimes.
Science depends on a “churn”, both of information and people. After completing their PhD “ticket”, many of our best young researchers will spend 3-5 years employed as postdoctoral fellows in the USA, Europe and (increasingly) the Asian countries to our north, while young American, Asian and European/British scientists come to work for a time with our leading scientists.
The proposed 2018 US President’s budget would, for example, abolish the NIH Fogarty International Centre that has enabled many young scientists from across the planet to work in North America. In turn, we recruited “keepers” like Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, our first, resident Nobel Prize winner for physics and current Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).
We might also recall that – supported strongly by Prime Ministers JJ Curtin and RG Menzies – the ANU (with 3 Nobel Prizes to its credit) was founded as a research university to position us in science and international affairs.
Not a done deal, yet
What looks to be happening in the US is not a done deal.
The US political system is very different from our own. The Division of Powers in the US Constitution means that the President is in many respects less powerful than our PM.
Unable to introduce legislation, a President can only pass (or veto) bills that come from the Congress. Through to September, we will be watching a vigorous negotiation process where separate budgets from the House and the Senate (which may well ignore most, if not all, of the President’s ambit claims) will develop a “reconciled” budget that will be presented for President Trump’s signature.
How March for Science might help
The hope is that this international celebration of science will cause US legislators, particularly the more thoughtful on the right of politics, to reflect a little and understand what they risk if they choose to erode their global scientific leadership.
There are massive problems to be solved, along with great economic opportunities stemming from the development of novel therapies and new, smart “clean and green” technologies in, particularly, the energy generation and conservation sector.
Ignoring, or denying, problems does not make them go away. Whether or not the message is welcome, the enormous power of science and technology means we can only go forward if future generations are to experience the levels of human well-being and benign environmental conditions we enjoy today.
There is no going back. The past is a largely imagined, and irretrievable country.
The motto of the Royal Society, Britain’s and perhaps the world’s oldest scientific society, is “nullius in verba” which it says translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.
This is a rejection of the idea that truth can be sought through authority. It is a call to turn to experimentation and direct engagement with the physical world to discover truth. A noble sentiment indeed.
It’s also one of the key arguments used by deniers of climate science in attempts to refute both that the world is warming and that this warming is a result of human activity (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).
This is a common approach, exemplified by Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts in his many interviews on the subject.
It gives deniers an excuse to reject the overwhelming endorsement of science organisations around the world, including the Royal Society itself, and academies of science from more than 80 other countries, that AGW is a reality.
The argument is simple, and goes a bit like this. Science does not work by appeal to authority, but rather by the acquisition of experimentally verifiable evidence. Appeals to scientific bodies are appeals to authority, so should be rejected.
It is important to understand that the Royal Society was formed in 1660 in the shadow of a millennium of near-absolute church authority, including the general acceptance of Aristotelian natural philosophy.
The rebellion against this authority was also a celebration of the freedom to elevate the credibility of scientific exploration over that of church teachings and other accepted dogma.
Importantly, the authority to which the Royal Society’s motto alludes was a non-scientific one. The motto represents the superiority of verifiable empirical claims over claims driven by religious or political ideology. No motto could better represent the optimism of the times.
It is also important to understand that much of the science then undertaken was rather crude by modern standards and, by its reliance on very basic technology, was verifiable by individuals, or at least small groups of individuals.
The science of the 21st century is in most areas far too complex to be understood, let alone experimentally verified, by any one person. Science is now a vast collaborative web of information characterised by the dynamic interplay and testing of ideas on a global scale.
The sharing of experimental results and the collective scrutiny of ideas forge deep and complex understandings. Teams of scientists from a range of specialities are often required to interpret and use this knowledge.
The suggestion that a subject as complex as global warming, for example, could be verified by a single person, untrained and untutored in the norms of scientific inquiry, betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of modern science.
It is also arrogant in its assumption that something not immediately obvious to oneself cannot be the case.
The non-fallacy of appealing to authority
It’s also worth pointing out that the recourse to authority is often presented as a fallacy of reasoning, the so-called “appeal to authority” fallacy.
But this is not the case. The fallacy would be more correctly named the “appeal to false authority” – for example when celebrities who are famous for their sporting or entertainment achievements are cited in support of a particular medical treatment.
Appeals to appropriate authorities, such as experts in their fields, are one of the glues that hold our technological society together. We go to our doctor for her expertise and we are happy to take her advice without the insistence that the efficacy of potential treatments be demonstrated to us there and then.
Engineers build impressively tall buildings, pilots fly incredibly complex machines, and business experts advise on financial markets. All this expertise is confidently assimilated into our lives because we recognise its value and legitimacy.
It is not fallacious reasoning to accept expert advice. We rely on the authority of experts for quality control in many areas, including the peer-review process of science and other academic disciplines.
Assuming that the motto of the Royal Society suggests we should not listen to the collective wisdom of scientists because science is not about respecting expertise is simply indefensible.
In fact, the role of many such societies in the 17th and 18th centuries was to act as a conduit between scientists and governments for the provision of expert advice.
If legitimate authorities are not to be consulted, presumably there is no point in having scientists around at all, as each person would need to verify any claim on their own terms and with their own resources. That would mean a speedy decline into very dark times indeed.
Deniers of climate science such as Senator Roberts are among those most in violation of the creed “nullius in verba”. Their continued insistence on “empirical evidence” while simultaneously rejecting it (usually through invoking some conspiracy theory) suggests an immature rationality at best, and outright duplicity at worst.
Their refusal to accept empirically verified evidence because it goes against their existing beliefs is the very stuff against which the Royal Society rebelled.
They may have a voice, but they have no authority in this debate.
Malcolm Roberts, the Queensland One Nation candidate who seems set to be elected to the Senate, sees the world through the eyes of the archetypal conspiracist. Dark forces move with malign intent behind world events.
Climate science is a conspiracy cooked up by a secretive alliance of leading scientists and scientific bodies, including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology that function as the Australian arms of a wider global plot centred on the UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Roberts has a background in the mining industry and serves as the project manager of the Galileo Movement, the central denialist organisation in Australia. Its patron is broadcaster Alan Jones, and its panel of advisers is stacked with all of the usual suspects – Gina Reinhart favourite Ian Plimer, blogger Jo Nova, monarchist David Flint and even Lord Monckton. It claims the Sydney PR company Jackson Wells as its media adviser. Jackson Wells lists “reputation management” among its core services.
In a rambling “personal declaration of interests” Roberts discloses that his daughter’s horse Clancy eats only renewable foods and that his working methods “are based on understanding the Laws of Nature … and understanding the Human Condition.”
His work shows all the signs of what psychologists call conspiracist ideation, defined by Stephan Lewandowsky et al. as “the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations. The presumed conspirators are typically perceived as virtually omnipotent …”
Elders of Zion
Roberts is interesting because he bells the cat of climate denial. As Patrick Stokes has pointed out, he believes that behind the scientific conspiracy is a secret ring of international banking families. Speaking on behalf of the Galileo Movement, in 2012 Roberts told the Sydney Morning Herald that climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.
If that sounds like the toxic far-right claim about the global ambition of Jewish bankers then it is. Roberts seems to share the worldview of those who see the world’s political leaders as, in the words of one group, the puppets of “the Money Master — the Jew — sick, neurotic, carnal, haters of Christ”.
In a bizarre 135-page document titled “Why? Motives Driving Climate Fraud”, Roberts argues that international bankers are secretly pursuing their agenda of global control through environmentalism. He singles out the Rothschilds (of course), Goldman Sachs, the Rockefellers and the Warburg family.
Roberts’ embrace of the Jewish banker conspiracy has proven too much for fellow climate science denier Andrew Bolt, who in 2012 asked Roberts to name the banking families in question. Bolt did not publish Roberts’ response but did publish his reply:
“Two of the three most prominent and current banking families you’ve mentioned are Jewish, and the third is sometimes falsely assumed to be. Yes, this smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”
Bolt asked that his name be removed as an adviser to the Galileo Movement.
I almost prefaced the last sentence with the words “to his credit”, but why should we congratulate a man for choosing to reject one mad conspiracy theory when he has devoted years of his life fostering another?
While Andrew Bolt may “despise” Jewish world conspiracy theories, there is nothing inconsistent in Roberts’ position if you are prone to conspiracist ideation.
If you believe climate science is a giant conspiracy drawing together the world’s leading climate scientists, along with the IPCC, various scientific academies, environmental organisations and governments around the world – as Andrew Bolt does, along with championing the weirdest of the New World Order conspiracy theorists, Christopher Monckton – it is natural then to ask who or what lies behind and organises this conspiracy to deceive and what their ultimate objective might be?
Settling on Jewish bankers, known to be bent on world domination, makes sense.
Hanson world in Canberra
The global plot promoted by Malcolm Roberts is not some kind of outlier in Hanson world. As Robert Manne pointed out in 1998, Hanson’s statement of her worldview, set out in her tome The Truth, spells out with breath-taking candour every crazed far-right belief in the “New World Order”. It makes Roberts’ more recent statements appear positively restrained.
So the fringe has found its way to the centre, and with powerful support. Among many like-minded others, Maurice Newman, once a senior business adviser to Tony Abbott, is given free rein to espouse his froth-at-the-mouth conspiracy theories on the pages of The Australian, which more and more resembles that other Murdoch outlet for paranoia, Fox News.
And there can be no doubt that Roberts’ views will be welcomed by a significant minority of Coalition parliamentarians who support Hanson’s call for an inquiry into the “corrupt” Bureau of Meteorology and for the teaching of climate denial in schools.
The recently elected One Nation senator from Queensland, Malcolm Roberts, fervently rejects the established scientific fact that human greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, invoking a fairly familiar trope of paranoid theories to propound this belief.
Roberts variously claims that the United Nations is trying to impose world government on us through climate policy, and that CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are corrupt institutions that, one presumes, have fabricated the climate extremes that we increasingly observe all over the world.
It might be tempting to dismiss his utterances as conspiratorial ramblings. But they can teach us a great deal about the psychology of science denial. They also provide us with a broad spectrum of diagnostics to spot pseudoscience posing as science.
The necessity of conspiracism
First, the appeal to a conspiracy among scientists, bankers and governments is never just a slip of the tongue but a pervasive and necessary ingredient of the denial of well-established science. The tobacco industry referred to medical research on lung cancer as being conducted by an “oligopolistic cartel” that “manufactures alleged evidence”. Some people accuse the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of creating and spreading AIDS, and much anti-vaccination content on the web is suffused with conspiratorial allegations of totalitarianism.
This conspiratorial mumbo jumbo inevitably arises when people deny facts that are supported by an overwhelming body of evidence and are no longer the subject of genuine debate in the scientific community, having already been tested thoroughly. As evidence mounts, there comes a point at which inconvenient scientific findings can only be explained away by recourse to huge, nebulous and nefarious agendas such as the World Government or Stalinism.
If you are addicted to nicotine but terrified of the effort required to give up smoking, it might be comforting instead to accuse medical researchers of being oligopolists (whatever that means).
Likewise, if you are a former coal miner, like Malcolm Roberts, it is perhaps easier to accuse climate scientists of colluding to create a world government (whatever that is) than to accept the need to take coal out of our economy.
Indeed, the link is so established that conspiracist language is one of the best diagnostic tools you can use to spot pseudoscience and science denial.
The Galileo gambit
How else can science dissenters attempt to justify their contrarian position? Another tactic is to appeal to heroic historical dissenters, the usual hero of choice being Galileo Galilei, who overturned the orthodoxy that everything revolves around the Earth.
This appeal is so common in pseudoscientific quackery that it is known as the Galileo gambit. The essence of this argument is:
They laughed at Galileo, and he was right.
They laugh at me, therefore I am right.
A primary logical difficulty with this argument is that plenty of people are laughed at because their positions are absurd. Being dismissed by scientists doesn’t automatically entitle you to a Nobel Prize.
Another logical difficulty with this argument is that it implies that no scientific opinion can ever be valid unless it is rejected by the vast majority of scientists. Earth must be flat because no scientist other than a Googling Galileo in Gnowangerup says so. Tobacco must be good for you because only tobacco-industry operatives believe it. And climate change must be a hoax because only the heroic Malcolm Roberts and his Galileo Movement have seen through the conspiracy.
Any invocation of Galileo’s name in the context of purported scientific dissent is a red flag that you’re being fed pseudoscience and denial.
The sounds of science
The rejection of well-established science is often couched in sciency-sounding terms. The word “evidence” has assumed a particular prominence in pseudoscientific circles, perhaps because it sounds respectable and evokes images of Hercule Poirot tenaciously investigating dastardly deeds.
Since being elected, Roberts has again aired his claim that there is “no empirical evidence” for climate change.
It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.
Conspiracism, the Galileo gambit and the use of sciency-sounding language to mislead are the three principal characteristics of science denial. Whenever one or more of them is present, you can be confident you’re listening to a debate about politics or ideology, not science.
It’s not uncommon to hear people applaud this approach because, after all, they “speak their mind”. But what is so good about speaking your mind if it’s a jumbled mess of self-contradiction?
Even if the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Trump and Hanson, as two examples, are generally incoherent, could there be any good points worth exploring buried under the intellectual rubble? Either way, should we be listening?
Let me make the case for why these views should be heard, with attention to specific contexts and principles.
He highlighted the desirability for those in the public arena, and particularity those holding or vying for power, to spell out their thinking so that we can make up our own individual minds based on a rational analysis of the case rather than a simple appeal to emotions.
A necessary condition of this is that people not only speak their minds, but must lay out the reasoned argument that leads them to their position. It is the argument, not just the end position, that demands evaluation, for only through this process can we establish the credibility of the end point.
This requirement for a common language of rationality is, we hope, what leads to the best outcomes in the long run. It protects us from leaders acting on whims or in their own interests.
It’s also a bulwark against a world where only shouted slogans and appeals to fear make up the substance of public discourse. A world William Yeats glimpsed in his poem The Second Coming when he wrote of a time in which:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Divergence of opinion, in which people can simply speak their minds, and hopefully their thinking, is desirable. But this divergence must be followed by a phase of convergence in which alternative views are evaluated and consequently progressed or discarded based on collaboratively established norms of effective reasoning.
Each time we hear a poorly argued view, it should further inoculate us against accepting that view.
If arguments for particular positions with relevance to public life ought be exposed to public scrutiny, they must therefore be listened to and seriously engaged with by at least some people some of the time.
Listen for only so long
We do not, however, have the responsibility to elevate a view beyond the point it can attain through its own persuasiveness. Nor are we obliged to keep giving it our attention after its credibility is found wanting.
Appeals for another hearing without fresh arguments or evidence have no inherent right to be further entertained. Such is the nature of debate in young-earth creationism, anti-vaccination advocates or climate change denial, wherein the same old constantly refuted arguments come up again for another desperate gasp of public air.
It is fine to insist that an argument be evaluated on the proving ground of public reason. But it is an offence against that same principle to demand it stay on the playing field once it has been effectively refuted. A sure test of this unwarranted persistence is the degree to which reasoned argument is replaced by tub-thumping, fear-mongering and appeals to the status quo.
People are free to keep saying what they like but, as I have written before, they should not mistake the right to speak with the right to be heard once their case has already failed to convince.
The debate is therefore not silenced, but reaches closure through established, socially moderated processes of analysis and evaluation. All else is cheer-leading in an attempt to convince others that you are still on the field. But the rest of us are entitled to just go home.
Who decides what becomes public?
This all sounds quite rational, but who are the gatekeepers of the public arena? This is a complex issue. In an ideal world, the entry ticket would be a reasoned case in the public interest, but too many box seats have been pre-sold to vested interests.
So we see media companies such as News Corp pushing arguments against climate science that have long been discredited. And across the board news items and personalities that are sensational rather than significant are placed front and centre.
Media coverage of those speaking publicly is always a decision, and it’s a decision that exposes bias. Not just for who is heard, but also for who is not heard.
We are not obliged to give someone attention, let alone credibility, simply because they are speaking in public. The Enlightenment principles of public reasoning are conditional, and too often these conditions are not met or simply not understood.
But our acceptance and our rejection of views should always be a reflective practice, measured against long-established norms of rationality.
No one should be silenced, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be listened to.
‘As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people. Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science. Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.
Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound. The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide. No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.
More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.’
Today’s Australians are, by far, the best educated cohort in our history –- on paper, anyway -– but this is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgement, capacity to analyse and even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.
Australia also has about 4.5 million graduates (nearly 20% of the population), far more than the total numbers of traditional blue collar workers. Members of trade unions amount to about one million people: 18% of the total work force and about 12% of the private sector.
Inevitably, these numbers will shift our political culture, but the process is occurring slowly.
Australia, like the US, UK, Canada and much of Europe, has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy. The British journalist Robert Fisk has called this “the infantilisation of debate”.
In the era of “spin”, when a complex issue is involved, leaders do not explain. They find a mantra (“stop the boats!”) and repeat it endlessly, “staying on message”, without explanation or qualification. The word “because” seems to have fallen out of the political lexicon.
Evidence-based policies and actions should be a central principle in the working of our system and reliance on populism and sloganeering should be rejected, but in reality they are not.
Selling out science
Complex problems demand complex solutions. Examples of such problems are refugees and climate change, which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”).
“Retail politics” – sometimes called “transactional politics” – where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected. We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed –- and act accordingly.
A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis, compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.
Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media.
And the whole concept of the scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. Gus Nossal sometimes quotes me as saying that Australia must be the only country in the world where the word “academic” is treated as pejorative.
The role of science in policy development is a sensitive issue. I spent years – decades really – bashing my head against a brick wall trying to persuade colleagues to recognise the importance, even centrality, of science policy.
Many, probably most, of my political colleagues had no interest in science as an intellectual discipline, although they depended on science for their health, nutrition, transport, entertainment and communication.
We need to revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies, but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (“they are robbing you…”).
Evidence vs. opinion
There is a disturbing conflict between evidence and opinion (“you have evidence, but I have strong opinions”), and political processes are more likely to be driven by opinion rather than evidence in a short political cycle.
Brian Schmidt, our Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote of his experience in this regard in The Age on February 16:
As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.
Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science.
Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.
Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.
The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.
No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.
More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.
I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow, a 2011 best seller by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who, although not an economist, won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002 for his development of “prospect theory”.
Prospect theory analyses rational and irrational factors in decision making. He demonstrates, regrettably, the extent to which people like you and me use familiar short cuts – “heuristics” – to make intuitive judgements, and discount evidence or rationality in making decisions.
This can apply whether purchasing something, deciding where and how to like something, or taking a political stance on issues. Kahneman became the outstanding authority on behavioural economics and social psychology.
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, from 2012, is also an important book. I think Haidt could go much further with his thesis, which states that politics and religion tend to be centred on “values”, so people can pick and choose, and can sometimes be blinded to the facts because of their moral worldview. It is clear that many people say: “I reject these particular facts because I don’t trust where they come from.”
Heuristics and confusion
Psychologists confirm that we habitually engage in the cherry-picking of evidence -– we choose the bits that we are emotionally, intuitively, attracted to and comfortable with.
The Cambridge political scientist, David Runciman, argues that “opinion, interest and knowledge are too divided, and no event, whether an election […] or a crisis is clear enough in its meaning to bring closure”.
For example, there is fierce opposition in some quarters to the vaccination of children and the fluoridation of water supplies to prevent dental caries, even though the empirical evidence in support of both is overwhelming. But appeals to fear can be far more powerful than arguing on the basis of hard evidence.
There has been a sustained attack from some quarters – the News Corporation papers, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) to name only three – on scientific research and scientific method, even on rationality and the Enlightenment tradition.
The illusion was created that scientists are corrupt, while lobbyists are pure. One of the false assertions is that scientists who take the mainstream position are rewarded, while dissenters are punished (similar to Galileo and the Inquisition).
In Australia now, and the US until recently, the contrary could be argued. Galileo’s work was based on observation of data -– his opponents were operating from doctrine.
Scientists arguing for the mainstream view have been subject to strong attack by denialists who assert that they are quasi-religious zealots who are missionaries for a green religion.
In reality, it was the denialist/confusionist position to rely on faith, the conviction that there were a diversity of complex reasons for climate change but only one could be confidently rejected: the role of human activity.
There are three areas of attack against expertise and taking a long term, analytical view of the world: from the Right, the Left and the anxious Centre.
From the Right there have been systematic and well-financed attacks by lobbyists from the fossil fuels industry and electricity generators. This has been highly personal, often abusive, sometimes threatening.
The anxious Centre includes people working in particular industries and regions (such as Hunter Valley, La Trobe Valley, Tasmanian forests), understandably fearful of potential job losses, without much prospect of creating new jobs. The trade union movement is deeply divided on this –- as is the business community.
But from the Left, or some segments of the intellectual Left, a deconstructionist mind-set has partly undermined an evidence-based approach to policy making or problem solving.
The pluralist or deconstructionist or post-modern theory of knowledge is contemptuous of expertise, rejects the idea of hierarchies of knowledge and asserts the democratic mantra that –- as with votes in elections –- every opinion is of equal value, so that if you insist that the earth is flat, refuse vaccination for children or deny that HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, your view should be treated with respect.
Similarly, there has been a repudiation of expertise and or taste -– dismissing the idea of people like Harold Bloom, or myself, that there is a “Western canon” which sets benchmarks. “No,” say the deconstructionists, “the paintings of Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist, are just as good as Raphael, and hip-hop performances are just as valid as Beethoven’s Opus 131.”
The Welsh geneticist Steve Jones asks an important question: if there is a division of scientific opinion, with 999 on one side, and one on the other, how should the debate be handled? Should the one dissenter be given 500 opportunities to speak?
Yet Graham Lloyd, The Australian’s environment editor – perhaps more accurately described as the anti-environment editor – trawls the web, finds obscure and unsubstantiated critiques of mainstream science, then publishes them as front page attacks on professional integrity.
Science and common-sense
There are major problems when it comes to explaining some of issues in science, and there have been ever since science began. Some fundamental scientific discoveries seem to be counter-intuitive, challenging direct observation or our common-sense view of the world.
Common sense, and direct observation, tells us that the Earth is flat, that the sun (like the moon) rotates around the Earth and that forces don’t operate at a distance.
Aristotle with his encyclopedic –- but often erroneous –- grasp of natural phenomena, was a compelling authority in support of a geocentric universe, and that the seat of reason was in the heart, not the brain, and that females were deformed males. His views were dominant for 1,500 years.
The Greek astronomer Ptolemy, following Aristotle, provided ingenious proofs in support of geocentrism. Then along came Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler who said: “Your common sense observation is wrong. The orbits of sun and moon are completely different, although they appear to be similar.” (Our use of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” preserves the Ptolemaic paradigm.)
By the 20th Century, electronics enabled us to apply force from a distance, to do thousands of things remotely, manipulating spacecraft and satellites, or receiving signals (radio, telephony, television), setting alarms, opening garage doors and, one of the great labour saving devices, the remote switch for television.
The most obvious disjunction between science and common sense is the question: “right now, are we at rest or in motion?”
Common sense and direct observation suggests that we are at rest. But science says, “wrong again”. We are moving very rapidly. The earth is spinning on its axis at a rate of 1,669 kmh at the equator, and in Melbourne (37.8°S) at 1,317 kmh. We are also orbiting round the sun even faster, at nearly 30 kms, or 107,200 kmh. There is a third motion, harder to measure, as the galaxy expands -– and it’s speeding up, as Brian Schmidt postulates.
But, sitting here in Footscray, it is hard to grasp that we are in motion, kept in place by gravity. Psychology resists it. Essentially we have to accept the repudiation of common sense on trust, because somebody in a white coat says, “trust me, I’m a scientist”. I would challenge anyone to reconcile common sense and quantum theory or to satisfactorily explain the Higgs boson or -– hardest of all -– to define gravity.
The factors that limit the psychological carrying power of much science –- not all -– include these:
its complexity, often requiring use of a language known only to initiates
outcomes are seen as too expensive
outcomes are seen as too slow
the history of science has been badly taught, often portrayed as an effortless success story, proceeding from triumph to triumph, instead of the passionate and dramatic reality.
Science at the core
Scientists and learned societies have been punching below their weight in matters of public policy, and they are careful to avoid being involved in controversies outside their disciplines, possible threats to grants being among them.
Science must be at the core of our national endeavour and you are well placed to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of its thinking, and its leaders.
There is a wide-spread assumption by industry and government that Australia’s economic, social and technological future will be a mirror image of the past. We can be confident that this just won’t happen. We have not even begun to talk seriously about the threats and opportunities of a post-carbon economy.
I encourage you, whatever your political persuasion, or lack of it, to argue for higher recognition of the role that science must play in our future, and drive your MP mad unless or until he/ she does something about it.
Remember Archimedes and his lever. But first you have to find a fulcrum, then you push the lever.