George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.
Prof Kahan says:
‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’
However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.
But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.
First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.
Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.
He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.
People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.
Geologist Ian Plimer, who has written a book opposing the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with journalist George Monbiot.
But wait a minute. Actually, journalist George Monbiot, who has written a book supporting the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with geologist Ian Plimer.
Does this mean they’ve both backed down? Or does it mean they’ve both courageously stood their ground?
What’s going on?
From one perspective, Plimer is peddling ‘24 carat bafflegab’. From another, Monbiot is preaching a ‘secular religion’ and is the high priest of global warming.
Who’s right? Surely, when it comes to scientific facts, ‘Truth is truth to the end of reckoning’ (Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 5 scene i). Why can’t these people just agree? And why can’t we get to the bottom of why they can’t agree? It’s as though they can’t even agree on what the facts are they’re supposed to be disagreeing about. Each seems to operate as though no matter what is said, the other will twist it to their own advantage because they are acting in bad faith.
Let’s get this straight. Climate change ‘deniers’ are (mostly) not being malicious. They genuinely believe what they are saying, just like climate change ‘believers’ do. The assumption of bad faith is entirely unhelpful.
“But how can it possibly be that in the face of all the evidence people still won’t face the truth of climate change?” That’s one way of looking at it, but it depends on a mono-rational view of the world which is contested by grid-group cultural theory. A more nuanced analysis suggests that there are four, not one or two ways of organising institutions, from families to global treaties, and what counts as evidence for one cultural bias will never count as evidence for another.
So, Egalitarian environmentalists who want to promote their own view would do well to take seriously the contesting claims of Individualism, Hierarchy and Fatalism. These are not merely arguments about the evidence but deeper arguments about rationality itself.
Should national governments make contingency plans in case of peaking oil? In a recent report of an interview he did with Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, the journalist George Monbiot appears shocked there is no such plan for the UK. Why?
In about 1973 you could collect three vouchers from the side of a cornflakes packet and send off for a little plastic model of a North Sea oil rig. For a child, this was the brave new frontier, the UK’s answer to the space program. It was exciting. And even then it was common knowledge we had ’30 years’ of oil so there was no need to worry about the future. Since then, we’ve always had ’30 years of oil’ because most policy makers saw this not as a prediction about reality but merely as code for ‘not on the policy radar, ever’. Then (after 30 years, note) North Sea oil began its steep and irreversable decline and policy makers were actually surprised.
Unfortunately for Reason with a capital R, humans don’t look at the facts and then decide what is going on. Instead we collect and filter data on the basis of preconceived notions of what must surely be going on. Egalitarians such as George Monbiot generally believe things must be running out and our options are narrowing. The by-line to the article says he was ‘shocked and alarmed’. He would be – it’s in the egalitarian job description. In contrast, Individualists are quite sure they know that there are limitless opportunities just waiting to be unlocked by human ingenuity and that all talk of scarcity is defeatist nonsense. Then there are the Hierarchists and the Fatalists who have their own take on the argument. These four poles are the four ‘cultural biases’ of grid-group cultural theory. An understanding of this goes a long way towards making sense of the way issues such as peak oil and global warming are such a lightning rod for debates about how society ought to be organised. A great primer on the basics of grid-group is Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (1998), and the FourCultures blog looks at the world through a grid-group lens.
At the very least, this approach helps us recognise that we’re not really debating how much oil there is. We’re really promoting conflicting visions of social organisation, and using oil (or carbon dioxode, or whatever) as the pretext.
British Journalist George Monbiot has been writing a number of pieces about a TV ‘documentary’ which supposedly tried to debunk climate change by doctoring statistics and misrepresenting interviewees. Certainly it was one of the most mendacious things I’ve seen on TV, right up there with ads for shampoo that cures dandruff. Monbiot seems to think this kind of thing plays well because, as he puts it,
“We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths”.
I think he’s completely wrong on this. We are not self-deceiving in this way, and we are not living in ‘the age of stupid‘ as a film with a similar theory put it (although I look forward to seeing the movie). Well, not with global warming, anyway. Dandruff may be another matter. I’ll explain.