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Denialism: A disease which can affect generally smart people

Abstract Factory asks: Why are so many people in IT climate change denialists?

Computing workers are, on average, more “autistic” and less “empathetic” on the autism/empathy spectrum. That is, they are unusually incompetent at modeling the mental and emotional states of other people. As a result, they fail to place themselves in the shoes of professional climatologists. That is, they do not imagine that most professional climatologists have worked hard to become experts in an esoteric and demanding (which is to say nerdy) intellectual discipline; might be driven by passion and curiosity and a desire to get it right; might along the way have been exposed to vast volumes of knowledge with which the lay observer is not familiar. In short, it is much easier to view literally thousands of scientists worldwide as a species of fools, liars, and conspirators when one assumes that they are nothing like oneself. (I strongly suspect that fewer IT workers would be climate change denialists if they realized that climate scientists are natural science geeks like them, whereas the primary beneficiaries of climate change denialism are corporate suits who were probably shoving geeks into lockers in high school.)

Steve Dutch (a bona fide scientist) on the alleged logic of denialists:

  1. You face reality. You don’t evade it by dredging up reasons not to believe evidence or labeling anything you don’t want to believe in a “conspiracy.”
  2. “Conservatism” and “conserve” come from the same root. You don’t unnecessarily squander limited resources you may need later. In fact you don’t unnecessarily squander anything – period. You keep your debt limited to the minimum necessary. You pay your bills. If you get an unexpected windfall, you manage it carefully to stretch it out. You treat things in your care like they’re your own.
    So completely apart from global warming, fossil fuels are finite and will have a finite lifetime, and we have no practical substitute ready to replace them. Therefore we need to manage them carefully to maximize their lifetime. First we need to extend the lifetime of the resources themselves, and second, we need to buy time to develop alternatives and bring them on line. Doing so will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a side result.
    It’s a painfully amusing irony that most of the people who are lambasting Republicans for abandoning their traditional fiscal restraint, simultaneously pretend that finite resources are not a problem. We would have neither an energy crisis nor a global warming problem if conservatives treated fossil fuels the way they claim money should be treated. (For that matter, we wouldn’t be reeling from the collapse of the sub-prime lending market if conservatives had treated money the way they claim money should be treated.)
  3. You plan for the worst case. You don’t necessarily assume the worst case, but you have a plan if it happens. So even conservatives who regard the war in Iraq as a fiasco nevertheless tend to advocate gritting our teeth and slugging it out, because the worst case scenarios from losing or retreating are much worse than the present mess.
    But when it comes to climate change, the same people see nothing but rainbows and fuzzy bunny rabbits, or warm beaches and palm trees. Terrorist attacks and global Sharia law? Well, those are likely outcomes of retreating from Iraq. Sea level rise, more droughts and severe weather from global warming? That’s just fear-mongering.

Dutch writes a penetrating analysis about why industry scientists tend not to get the big picture.

This “tunnel vision” can lead some applied scientists to overestimate their own competence and underestimate the difficulties of other fields. The geologists who opposed continental drift in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were perfectly competent at finding oil; they failed to recognize that much of their experience was simply irrelevant to the evidence and techniques that were involved in the confirmation of continental drift. Essentially, they drilled the same oil well for decades without broadening their experience in the slightest. A good general rule here: if you can’t get a paper published in some field, you are not qualified to reject the consensus of workers in that field. If you can get papers published in astronomy, you can advocate for Velikovsky, but not until.

By the way, I consider this piece to be an  adequate answer to the questions I posed in an earlier post about the “biases of academia”

More amusingly about how experts compare to nonexperts:

A few years ago I published a textbook with two other authors. The chapter reviewers came from institutions ranging from prominent research universities all the way to community colleges. As much as I despise the “publish or perish” system, the comments I got from people who never published research were horrifying. They either had not read a journal in years, or if they did read recent research, misunderstood it. Expertise in any field is truly a matter of “use it or lose it.” Some of these people had lost the right to be considered experts.

So people who are recognized experts in their fields don’t just have a piece of paper on the wall; they spend a great deal of their time maintaining and upgrading their skills. While you’re preparing to take on the medical profession by reading “I Am Joe’s Hangnail” in the Reader’s Digest, what do you suppose the medical professionals are reading?

The dead giveaway that a person doesn’t have a clue what really goes on in professional circles is the question “how many books have you read on ……?” Books are just not the principal way information flows among professionals. Almost all professional fields report new information in journals. If you’re in show biz, you don’t find out about new plays and movie projects from books; you read Variety. If you’re a doctor, you don’t find out about new ways to remove gall bladders from books; you read the New England Journal of Medicine. And in any case, it’s not quantity but quality. One paper in the Geological Society of America Bulletin with a reliable age date for a rock unit outweighs ten thousand books by creationists arguing for a young earth.

My only complaint is that his standards tend to dismiss the value of informal expertise. Much as I despise the conclusions of people like Ian Plimer,  I don’t think we should reject their conclusions purely on the basis of credentials.


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