Denial, Denialism, and Climate Change: Part I
A friend of mine sent me a long article from The Guardian, “Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth.” To me, the article is a long, intellectual justification for name-calling. Call someone a denier, you’re calling them a bad person. Call them a denialist, they’re a worse person. What could be worse than calling someone a denialist? Well, calling them a post-denialist. Like fucking the fucking post-denialist, Donald Trump.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, done for "humorous effect," I don’t like name calling. I think it degrades dialog and the search for truth—and that’s why I am here. To discover truth. To create knowledge. In a world flooded with information, how do you decide what to believe?
One answer is: you write long blog posts to explain your present point of view to a friend. Because you are writing for a friend you have an obligation to not propagate your own ignorance and error. So you fact-check yourself as you go along. And you pay heed to people with views not identical to your own. In the course of doing so you clarify your own ideas and you even change your mind.
Which I have done while writing the first two parts of this series.
To know what to believe you need to evaluate facts as they are presented to you. You can't fact-check everything. It’s tedious and expensive, but a necessary starting point.
You've also got to heuristics. It would be nice if it was easier: if I could say "Well, I trust the New York Times." But I've fact-checked the New York Times, and I've found that's a bad heuristic. Likewise "Trust the Wall Street Journal" is a bad one." On the other hand "Trust Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) to reliably report facts" is a good one.
So my metaheuristic is: I’ve got some. If have determined (by fact-checking) that X is a reliable source of information in a particular domain—where X might be a person or an institution and person X endorses Y as a resource, then I can assign a certain amount of trust to Y without the full cost of fact-checking.
Another heuristic: if someone resorts to name-calling, I downrate them. I may reject them entirely. I’m not against name calling in every situation. But if someone replaces discussion of facts and critical analysis of arguments with name calling, then they’re assholes.
That’s a joke.
I’m not going to saying that Keith Kahn-Harris, author of the Guardian piece, is an asshole. He does have some critical analysis to go along with his name calling. But he name calls, too. And his whole essay seems an elaborate justification of name calling. So I could call him an asshole if I wanted to, and justify that to myself. Because I’m in a generous mood and I want to demonstrate charitable behavior, I’m not going to call him an asshole, even if he is one. Which I didn't say.
Instead, I am going to criticize his essay on its merits.
I don't disagree that there are people who deny certain things, and he starts by saying that it's a normal human activity. Even a necessary one.
I think that there is something wrong with putting people who deny the Holocaust in denier and denialist buckets with people who “provide subtle and not-so-subtle support for those opposed to taking radical action to address this urgent problem [climate change].” Like me. And I don’t like being in the same bucket as people who don’t accept evidence pointing to the origin of species based on Darwinian evolution, and people who believe that 9/11 was a government plot.
And what about people who deny evidence that--on the whole--the world has been getting better and has kept getting better for decades, perhaps even centuries. Yes, there are billions of people living in poverty, but the number of people who are NOT living in poverty is vastly greater than at any time in history. And the percentage is greater. What's wrong with acknowledging the fact that--even though there is still a lot of violence--that there is a stunning amount of evidence that shows that violence of every kind has been decreasing. We face an enormous number of problems caused by technology, but what about the benefits we're reaped.
What about human flourishing denialists? What about we live in an awesome world denialists? What about life is good denialists?
I'm not a Pollyanna. I don't believe that it is inevitable that life will continue to get better and will continue to be good. But FFS don't deny the evidence that it has gotten better and it might continue to be good. Don't build an alternative dystopian narrative to prevent people from being complacent. There is no good reason to be complacent. The whole world can turn to shit, quite easily. There are many more ways that things can go wrong than there are ways that things can get better.
But that's always been true. And yet many things have gotten better. And I think there are reasons that things have gotten better. Critical analysis of ideas, testing of theories, and so on, have made things better. I will acknowledge that there are times when name-calling might have some benefits. And I might even write something describing when name-calling could be valuable. But probably not. And certainly not now.
Instead, I'm going to explain why I don't like Keith's essay. And since I think I quality, according to his criteria, as a climate change denialist, I'm going to explain why I believe I am not denying what some might think that I'm denying. And in the course of that, I'll explain some of the problems that I see with what some might describe as the "consensus view" and others might describe as "not a consensus view."
To be continued in Part II.