Rupert Murdoch and David Koch, photographed shortly after speaking English to one another
Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it's an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are skeptical of, the science of climate change.
The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the UK-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its "Global Trends 2014" report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling:
Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, "the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and 'connected' population."
Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.
What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.
Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like "doubt," "natural causes," "climate models," and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what's the real cause?
One possible answer is that it's all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.
The US climate change counter movement is comprised of 91 separate organizations, with annual funding, collectively, of "just over $900 million." And they all speak English.
"I do not find these results surprising," says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. "It's the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns—US, UK, Australia and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions." (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)
Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.
In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers "did not accept" the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers—the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph—were particular hotbeds of skepticism. "The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields," noted the study.
And then there's the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, "the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful skeptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent." (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren't owned by News Corp.)
Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.
And media aren't the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There's also the Anglophone nations' concentration of climate "skeptic" think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalizations necessary to feed this anti-science position. According to a study in Climatic Change earlier this year, the US is home to 91 different organizations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a "climate change counter-movement." The annual funding of these organizations, collectively, is "just over $900 million." That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate "skeptic" activity, and while the study was limited to the US, it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.
Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos MORI (which released the data) adds another possible causative factor behind the survey's results, noting that environmental concern is very high in China today, due to the omnipresent conditions of environmental pollution. By contrast, that's not a part of your everyday experience in England or Australia. "In many surveys in China, environment is the top concern," Page comments. "In contrast, in the west, it's a long way down the list behind the economy and crime."
Whatever the precise concatenation of causes, the evidence seems clear. We English speakers have a special problem when it comes to understanding and accepting climate science. In language, we're Anglophones; but in climate science, we're a bunch of Anglophonies.
The Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica. In a new sci-fi novella, the collapse of this ice sheet becomes synonymous with the collapse of Western Civilization.
You don't know it yet. There's no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you're now living is the "Penumbral Age" of human history—meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You're living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.
Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of "science-based fiction" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. In a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of "cli-fi," or climate science fiction, entitledThe Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.
So why did two historians turn to sci-fi? On the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Oreskes explained that after the extensive research that went into Merchants of Doubt, she and Conway "felt like we really understood the science, but we also felt that the scientific community had really not explained why any of this mattered. And we just kept coming back to this idea of, how do we really talk about why this matters, and not just for polar bears, and not just for people living in far flung places or far into the future, but what's really at stake.”
The resulting book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, diverges in many respects from other cli-fi works, such as the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson (who clearly influenced Oreskes and Conway, and who blurbed their new book). Collapse is quite short, and hardly a study in character or plot. It has one narrator, and that narrator is a "scholar," approaching the topic analytically. The force of the story, then, comes not so much from dramatic elements, but rather, from its simple conceit: How would a fair-minded thinker, living 400 years from now, evaluate us?
The answer couldn't be more depressing: We got it all wrong. We sacrificed our birthright. We unleashed ravaging heat waves, destabilized ice sheets, shot chemicals into the skies in a failed attempt to fix our mess, then halted that intervention and made everything still worse. (All of these things unfold in the story.)
Columbia University Press.
The consequences were toppled governments, mass migrations, and unimaginable human tragedy from starvation, dehydration, and disease. Finally came the "collapse" itself, not of Western Civilization at first, but of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which in the late 21st century rapidly disintegrated, driving up sea levels some 5 meters. Much of Greenland soon followed.
"We were trying to sort of play on this two different senses of 'collapse,'" explained Oreskes on Inquiring Minds. Summarizing the plot of the book, she elaborated as follows: "The West Antarctic Ice Sheet does collapse, causing massive rapid sea level rise, which then puts into effect a kind of chain of events, which ultimately leads to the collapse of political and cultural institutions as well."
This is a worst-case scenario, but it is far from crazy in light of our current trajectory. And we are on this trajectory because we're ignoring the evidence all around us. "A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment," writes Oreskes' and Conway's historian, explaining why our present era will later be called the "Period of the Penumbra."
So why are we currently on course to be remembered for causing humanity's greatest failure? The historian singles out two causes in particular, the first of which may be surprising.
"A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment."
First off, the historian argues that our scientists failed us, and in a very particular way: They failed us by being too conservative. Scientists today know full well that the "95 percent confidence limit" (the requirement to statistically establish that there is less than a 1-in-20 chance that a given scientific result is due to chance—or, a 19 in 20 chance that it is real—before it can be accepted) is merely a convention, not a law of the universe. Nonetheless, this convention, the historian suggests, led scientists to be far too cautious, far too easily disrupted by the doubt-mongering of denialists, and far too unwilling to shout from the rooftops what they all knew was happening.
"We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists' desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity," writes the historian. "Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did." The historian even cites the currently live issue of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming: It is very likely that global warming is changing these storms in some way, but showing that in a way that satisfies all of the relevant experts has proven very difficult.
Why target scientists in particular in this book? Simply because a distant future historian would too, says Oreskes. "If you think about historians who write about the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the collapse of the Mayans or the Incans, it's always about trying to understand all of the factors that contributed," she says. "So we felt that we had to say something about scientists."
Naomi Oreskes. Andy Tankersley.
And then, there are the ideologues. They are, of course, vastly more culpable than the scientists. Here, The Collapse of Western Civilization picks up a theme from Merchants of Doubt:Free market ideologues, trained on the idea that the Soviet Union was the root of all evil, converted to an economic religion of their own dubbed "neoliberalism," defined as "the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty." Unfortunately for this worldview, market failures do exist, and climate change is the granddaddy of them all. But too many neoliberal ideologues couldn't accept that, so they doubled down on fantasy. (These are the climate change denying libertarians that we all know so well.)
In The Collapse of Western Civilization, neoliberals receive a comeuppance for this that is appropriate in its dramatic irony. The book ends by noting that China, a country not exactly wedded to freedom of thought or free markets, nevertheless survived climate calamity the best, thanks to its ability to exercise the centralized power of the state to force rapid climate adaptation. Eighty percent of Chinese thus survived the climate cataclysm. Other nations soon followed suit, also growing more autocratic.
Oreskes is not applauding this, of course; rather, she's suggesting that it could be a very, very painful irony resulting from the behavior of neoliberals. "It could well be the case that the authoritarian nations are actually better situated to deal with climate disruption than the liberal democracies," says Oreskes. "And we want to suggest that that's a very worrisome thought."
So can we still prevent ourselves from writing the story of The Collapse of Western Civilization—a story in which the historian narrator repeatedly points out missed opportunities, when something could have been done to prevent the disaster that followed? Oreskes thinks the answer is yes.
"It's not too late. We do still have opportunities," she says. "But if we continue the way we've been going, and we continue to miss these opportunities, there is going to become a point of no return."
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Scientists are using eye-tracking devices to detect automatic response differences between liberals and conservatives.
You could be forgiven for not having browsed yet through the latest issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. If you care about politics, though, you'll find a punchline therein that is pretty extraordinary.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences employs a rather unique practice called "Open Peer Commentary": An article of major significance is published, a large number of fellow scholars comment on it, and then the original author responds to all of them. The approach has many virtues, one of which being that it lets you see where a community of scholars and thinkers stand with respect to a controversial or provocative scientific idea. And in the latest issue of the journal, this process reveals the following conclusion: A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics.
That's a big deal. It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics—upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really change (most of us, anyway).
It is a "virtually inescapable conclusion" that the "cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different."
The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of "a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it," as one of their papers put it).
In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.
The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. "One possibility," they write, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The Pleistocene epoch lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.) We had John Hibbing on the Inquiring Minds podcast earlier this year, and he discussed these ideas in depth; you can listen here:
Hibbing and his colleagues make an intriguing argument in their latest paper, but what's truly fascinating is what happened next. Twenty-six different scholars or groups of scholars then got an opportunity to tee off on the paper, firing off a variety of responses. But as Hibbing and colleagues note in their final reply, out of those responses, "22 or 23 accept the general idea" of a conservative negativity bias, and simply add commentary to aid in the process of "modifying it, expanding on it, specifying where it does and does not work," and so on. Only about three scholars or groups of scholars seem to reject the idea entirely.
That's pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one of the teams of commenters includes New York University social psychologist John Jost, who drew considerable political ire in 2003 when he and his colleagues published a synthesis of existing psychological studies on ideology, suggesting that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity. Now, writing in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in response to Hibbing roughly a decade later, Jost and fellow scholars note that
There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. [Italics added]
Back in 2003, Jost and his team were blasted by Ann Coulter, George Will, and National Review for saying this; congressional Republicans began probing into their research grants; and they got lots of hate mail. But what's clear is that today, they've more or less triumphed. They won a field of converts to their view and sparked a wave of new research, including the work of Hibbing and his team.
"One possibility," note the authors, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed.
Granted, there are still many issues yet to be worked out in the science of ideology. Most of the commentaries on the new Hibbing paper are focused on important but not-paradigm-shifting side issues, such as the question of how conservatives can have a higher negativity bias, and yet not have neurotic personalities. (Actually, if anything, the research suggests that liberals may be the more neurotic bunch.) Indeed, conservatives tend to have a high degree of happiness and life satisfaction. But Hibbing and colleagues find no contradiction here. Instead, they paraphrase two other scholarly commentators (Matt Motyl of the University of Virginia and Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California), who note that "successfully monitoring and attending negative features of the environment, as conservatives tend to do, may be just the sort of tractable task…that is more likely to lead to a fulfilling and happy life than is a constant search for new experience after new experience."
All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock…thanks to science.
It was a truly groundbreaking moment in television. Educationally driven science content was once anathema on primetime television, but earlier this year, Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson and company set out to prove that wrong with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a remake of the classic Carl Sagan-hosted show from 1980.
And if today's Emmy nominations mean anything, the result is a major triumph. Cosmos has received 12 of them.
That's not quite as good as the 19 for Game of Thrones, or 16 for Breaking Bad, but it's a very significant number, and it includes nominations for "Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series," "Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming" (for writers Ann Druyan and Steven Soter), "Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming" (for director Brannon Braga).
In fact, that's actually a tie with HBO's True Detective, which also got 12 nominations.
Recently, I interviewed Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the face of the new show, who remarked on how to interpret its success. "You had entertainment writers putting The Walking Dead in the same sentence as Cosmos," said Tyson. "Game of Thrones in the same sentence of Cosmos. 'How's Cosmos doing against Game of Thrones?' That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned."
The Emmy nominations will certainly give entertainment writers another such opportunity. In fact, it's already happening. And when a science television show is celebrated by the deacons of popular culture, that can only be good news for the place of science in American society. (Note: the Showtime climate change documentary Years of Living Dangerously also received 2 Emmy nominations.)
The Cosmos nominations are for:
Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series
Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Art Direction for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality Competition Program
Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Main Title Design
Outstanding Musical Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)
Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music
Outstanding Sound Editing for Nonfiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera)
Outstanding Sound Mixing for Nonfiction Programming and
Outstanding Special and Visual Effects.
The full list of Emmy nominations can be found here.
To listen to our Inquiring Minds podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can stream below:
We've known for some time that as Republicans become more highly educated, or better at general science comprehension, they become stronger in their global warming denial. It's a phenomenon I've called the "smart idiot" effect: Apparently being highly informed or capable interacts with preexisting political biases to make those on the right more likely to be wrong than they would be if they had less education or knowledge.
Now, a new study in the journal Climatic Change has identified a closely related phenomenon. Call it the "rich idiot" effect: The study finds that among Republicans, as levels of income increase, so does their likelihood of "dismissing the dangers associated with climate change." But among Democrats and independents, there is little or no change in climate views as levels of income increase or decrease.
The study, by Jeremiah Bohr of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was based on an analysis of pre-existing data from the 2010 installment of the General Social Survey—a leading source of survey information about the US public. In addition to questions about levels of education, income, and political party affiliation, the survey asked the following: "In general, do you think that a rise in the world's temperature caused by climate change is extremely dangerous for the environment, very dangerous, somewhat dangerous, not very dangerous, or not dangerous at all for the environment?"
Bohr looked specifically at those individuals who chose the "not very dangerous" or "not dangerous at all" options. And he found that at the lowest income level, the probability that a Republican would give one of these dismissive answers was only 17.7 percent. But at the highest income level, it was 51.2 percent. Here's a visualization of the chief finding, showing how the likelihood of a Republican giving one of these answers changes in relation to wealth:
This therefore leads to a surprising conclusion: "At the bottom quintile of income, Republicans are not significantly different from either Independents or Democrats" with respect to their denial of climate risks, the study reports. It's only as income increases that Republicans become so much more likely to be deniers.
So why does this occur? There are several possibilities discussed in the paper.
The first is that income is actually a proxy for something else: Namely, being politically aware. It's possible that being wealthy is related to paying more attention to politics and your political party, and people who do so would be more aware of what those who agree with them on other issues actually think about global warming. (The study controlled for another possible influencing factor, education.)
The other possibility, though, is that climate denial is a defense of economic interests. "Among individuals with conservative political orientations, there is a correlation between occupying advantageous positions within industrial economic systems and an unwillingness to acknowledge the risks associated with climate change," Bohr writes. "Perhaps to validate their economic interests, these individuals are more likely to process information on climate science through political filters that result in denying the risks produced by climate change."